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

Election Year (73.4)

This scene contains racism, graphic violence and death.


44th of the Postill’s Dew, 2031 D.C.E

Federation of Northern States, Republic of Rhinea — Eiserne

Fruehauf fell in an unforgiving cold alleyway, and jarringly, without transition, she woke in a shabby couch in a room furnished with little else besides, the fireplace dangerously close. She feared she was being thrown in and burned, disposed of like the hated thing that she was, and panicked, and fell from the couch and squirmed uncontrolalbly.

Two figures approached her suddenly and touched her and spoke soundless words.

Fruehauf struggled against them. Her senses had not fully returned.

Her vision wavered, and when it set, and the blaring tinnitus in her ears gradually settled, she could see and hear a dark-skinned, dark-haired woman and another. She focused on the first, an object of a dreadful fear, and she panicked and pushed her away and bashed herself against the couch trying to escape without standing from the ground.

Finally another woman, blond-haired, blue-eyed, seized her and forced her still.

“Come to your senses!” She shouted in Fruehauf’s face.

Freuhauf stopped struggling, and her eyes filled with tears, and she gasped for breath.

Over the course of several minutes Fruehauf slowly came to. She averted her gaze from the Ayvartan woman and from the Nochtish woman who clearly understood and resented the way she treated the former. Fruehauf felt deplorable but steeped in that and did not allow herself to mutter any apologies. She well and truly wished she would just be discarded instead of afforded fake kindness, and so she became more forceful.

“Just give me a ride to the Hotel Reich, if you want to help.” She mumbled.

“Who do you think you are? I’d throw you out on the street if it wouldn’t constitute murder at this point!” said the Nochtish woman. “Are you listening to this?”

She turned to the other woman, who shook her head and smiled weakly. “I’m not unused to this, don’t worry. I think she’s just disoriented. Aren’t the soldiers all supposed to come tomorrow? If she’s here this early there must be some other reason isn’t there?”

“I’m not going out of my way to make it my business for this ingrate.”

Fruehauf felt bitter but she didn’t allow herself to indulge in any insults either.

“I’m from the unlucky 13th. Everyone hates my unit so we’re here early, so that there won’t have to be a walk of shame in the middle of the festivities.” Fruehauf said.

Though the Ayvartan woman did not understand the reference, the blond understood.

“The 13th Panzer? I guess that makes sense. It’s awful cruel, but it makes sense.”

She seemed to ease off Fruehauf at that point and Fruehauf hated her pity.

“If you won’t murder me then just drive me to the hotel. I don’t want to stay here.”

Both of the women were wearing robes over short gowns, and Fruehauf allowed herself the scandalous thought that they were cohabitating sapphics, a concept at once both well known and widespread and damned as a taboo. Since she didn’t know their names, or where she was, and was unlikely to be given either, so she guessed there wasn’t any danger in them meeting her like this. She couldn’t report anything even if she suspected, not that she would at any rate, no matter how bitter. Or maybe they were just that bold.

Not that she was going to report them; what good would it do for her? She was as bad.

“Fine, I’ll drive you there if it’ll get you out of my hair.” said the blond.

“Okay.” Fruehauf said. She sounded so bratty, and she hated it. But she couldn’t help it.

“Please take it easy ma’am,” said the Ayvartan woman.

Fruehauf didn’t even look at her. She was too gentle and Fruehauf hated that also.


Federation of Northern States, Republic of Rhinea — Hotel Reich

“Ma’am, this may be our only chance for a long time.”

Across the street from the Hotel Reich, among many cars packing the side of the road, there was a long, sleek black limousine with tinted windows. Though this vehicle served quite a life as a government vehicle, on this night its government markings, on its rear window and along the sides, had been covered by black strips of adhesive tape as a shoddy disguise. The limousine was lightly crewed: there were only two passengers and a driver. The VIP, a voluptuous blond woman in a black mink coat and a veiled hat, sat in the middle seat away from the windows. Across from her was an assistant in a skirt suit.

“Ma’am, I’ll go. I’m sure he’ll understand and acquiesce to a meeting.” said the assistant.

She was a young girl, unremarkable save for her devotion.

The VIP frowned, her lush red lips almost shining through the veil.

Even covered up, she was too easy to spot. Everyone was already always looking for her in a crowd. She was too big, too popular, too beautiful. Her life was not hers to hide now.

“This is stupid.” said the VIP. “What can I do, even with his help?”

“We can find dirt. We can sabotage Lehner.”

The VIP laughed bitterly. “Here I am, ‘sabotaging’ the father of my child.”

“I understand you’re anxious ma’am, but the way he behaves, the way he treats you! It’s horrible, it’s scandalous. I detest it. I agreed with you before, when you said you wanted to get revenge. Ma’am, you deserve revenge on him. He doesn’t deserve what he as.”

Agatha Lehner wondered if she’d hooked another girl with her charms, without even wanting to. Kind of like with Cecilia– would she leave too? But Cecilia hadn’t been unwanted. She could delude herself as much as she wanted. But she loved Cecilia. Perhaps this girl who had admired her for long, had grown to feel that way too.

What was with the women of this nation and their repressed, hopeless emotions?

Agatha wanted to shout. But she was so exhausted by everything.

“Go.” She said finally. “He’ll think it’s a trick. He won’t ally with us. But go.”

Nodding, the assistant left the limousine without even taking her coat.

Agatha reached out to her reflexively. Whether she wanted to warn her to take her coat, or to grab her and kiss her out of wanting a woman to kiss; she wasn’t certain which would have happened. Neither did. So quick was her assistant, so precise, that she was crossing the street before any more could be said. But not before Agatha could miss her.

Outside, the wind was picking up and driving the snow so that it seemed to fall in arcs, like the fire of a howitzer. They had a full blown blizzard on their hands, but there were still people out and loitering, because the event at the Reich was just that grand. Agatha’s young assistant squeezed between the cars and moved toward the crowd at the doors.

She bumped into a man, and was barely able to say she was sorry before darting on.

Pushing her way through a crowd apparently growing denser, she found, in the lobby of the Reich, that Bertholdt Stein was preparing to leave. His entourage surrounding him, and cameras and microphones ensnaring them, they moved meter by meter to the doors.  Reporters hurled questions at him from every which way, flashed him without a second’s hesitation, encircled him from all sides for his image and his words.

At this sight, the assistant panicked. She was too late.

This was not a case of a woman in a professional capacity who feared failing her boss in a task that could have granted her promotion. She would have stopped and give up if so. However this young woman had a sense of empathy toward a fellow woman, perhaps deeper than empathy, and she was smitten with justice and the belief she could carry it out. Bertholdt Stein was certainly privy to the gossip, to the slow humiliation of Agatha Lehner, her disappearance from banquets, her husband’s meetings with other women.

Surely Stein, if he was a real man, would at least agree to a meeting. To listen to her.

Fueled by this irrational desire, the assistant hurled herself through the crowd.

“Herr Stein!” She cried out. “Please sir! I need to talk with you.”

She burst through, found herself directly in front of the man and bowed her head.

Shocked, Stein and his entourage paused to take stock. The crowd pulled back a little.

All of those eyes were on her, and she could scarcely do more than stare and stammer.

It was only when the gunshots rang that she was able to get out another word.


Actions, once undertaken, cannot ever be fully recovered or undone.

In every decision there is the tragedy of the effect caused and the context lost.

Were it possible to step backward through the dimension of Time and arrive at any moment, one would still possess no means to change the future, but merely to create a new and different future through new and different actions. Were it possible to return to a moment in time, one would still fail to understand the fullness of its context, for every detail from the breaths taken and the sights seen, are impossible to recreate as a whole.

Historians work with visions, dreaming into the past. Like dreams, there is a skeleton of the truth, but when one considers the magnitude of everything that encompasses humanity, one realizes how simplistic that which we see as total truly is. One never comes close to the true enormity of the past; one can only create a nonfiction of it. One can reproduce the facts that one has and inject prejudice into them; and call it truth.

Ponderous “what if’s” are viewed as unprofessional, but where there is time, every historian projects their own prejudices to the past and wonders, had the item that vexes them personally been removed from a scene, could life have turned out better then?

Since the 44th of the Postill’s Dew, many have wondered about the assassination of Bertholdt Stein, and what could possibly have been done to change its cruel reality.

Many men have picked one of the several meetings that Stein had after which he could have left the building peacefully and lived to fight another day. A popular prejudice, for those who know of it, is that the meeting with Alicia Kolt was valuable and necessary; beyond that, it is a product of the historian’s bias which of the various consultants, lawyers, men of faith, and other persons with no valuable words, could have been axed.

It was perhaps the final meeting that was most tragic and frivolous, most vexing.

Many men in their bias would judge the woman who held up Stein until he was shot.

They would have cruel words for her, because they would call her and the deep-seated feelings that she held, ‘irrelevant’, ‘pointless’, ‘frivolous’. They would wonder aloud if she was a plant, or if she was Bertholdt’s mistress, or a young woman he took advantage of who desired some satisfaction. She would be utterly picked apart by history, destroyed.

Her connection to Agatha Lehner was mercifully destroyed in the process as well.

After all, what control or influence could one woman really exert on another one.

At any rate, as soon as the guns went off, Agatha was driven away and disappeared.

She was never connected to the scene nor did she connect herself to it, out of fear.

A nameless assistant would take blows in death that no even the shooter himself did.


Niklas Todt knew he was sick, and he knew he was part of a society that was sick.

To a point, Todt flew close to the substance of things, but he kicked off of the planet he was orbiting and became a moon to the truth, never touching it, never colliding. He hovered around truth and made violent tides that disfigured its surface. Nothing more.

Todt believed Nocht was being eaten from within, and he correctly identified that his lot in life was impoverished, marginalized, steadily drained: but not by warmongers and industrial vultures and capital kings who hoarded the wealth literally bled from civilians and soldiers alike. Todt blamed the peace movement, those cowards who tried to steer them from glorious victory; he blamed the subhuman Ayvartans, the mongrel Lachy, the barbaric Loups, and other such peoples whose conspiracies undermined the livelihood of those he considered truly human; he blamed the leftists and intellectuals and elites, now a singular class, unified out of the distortions of his own brain, for undermining an idealized Nochtish culture through the moral degeneracy of their scarcely-read words.

In his mind, he was part of the most hated, harassed, censored group of men on Aer.

In Todt’s life, the singular moment that politicized him was the frog pin that he had received at an Achim Lehner rally, years ago. Political commentators called him and other Lehner voters “Frogs,” who croaked and bleated in tune with their master, who let Lehner think for them so they wouldn’t have to. They let Lehner talk to them about science and progress and a new age for Nocht, about a utopian Nochtish vision were men armed with the greatest intellects in the world, the highest technology, the most iron-clad moral clarity and strength and a perfect roadmap of ideas, would finally solve the problems of civilization and become immortal. Todt had never felt both so angry and so elated. He was part of something; there was finally a place he was not alienated from. He listened to Lehner along with his fellows, and he believed, and he psyched himself up. And yet, that place was ridiculed and besieged. Todt believed he had to fight for it now.

That was as much as his manifesto had to say.

Beyond that, his physical actions were known.

He took his brother’s gun and he made it to the Hotel Reich.

For a long time he was a heavily psychoanalyzed cadaver.

Scholars would interrogate him in absentia for ages.

It was vexing!

He must have known the ramifications of what he was about to do. That there was no way he could escape, no way he would be acknowledged as the hero he saw himself to be. No way his movement would not alienate him for their own sake. And yet, on this score, history would fail. They never truly saw what lurked inside Niklas Todt’s head.

He was a ghost, and he would haunt history and those who lived in it.


A grey Oder Olympus parked across the street, near a black limousine.

None of the people in either car knew how close or how distant they were then.

With a huff, a young woman charged out of the back of the Olympus and crossed.

“Good riddance!” shouted the driver.

In the next instant, there were gunshots from inside the Reich.

Immediately, the black limousine took off, so fast it almost hit the Olympus.

Shocked, Cecilia Foss and Ramja Biswa stepped out of the car and stared at the street around the Hotel Reich. People fled in a panic. A human mass emptied out.

Helga Fruehauf rushed inside out of some soldierly sense of justice.

Even she did not know what she was doing, but the sound of guns activated something in her. She charged through the doorway and found herself facing the back of a disheveled, wild-haired man shooting wildly with one-handed grip. He hit a woman in front of him twice, swung his arm, hit two men, and then he hit finally laid waste to his actual target. Bertholdt Stein got to say to nothing, not even to beg, not even to stop; he was struck in the stomach, and the recoil rode the other shots up, to the chest, to the neck twice.

Fruehauf threw herself forward, barely thinking.

She wrestled a surprised Todt to the ground.

They fumbled with the gun for what was an eternity to those trapped around them.

Fruehauf and Todt both had the insane strength of adrenaline on their side.

But Todt took control of the gun, because Fruehauf was herself, too sick, too drained.

Had she not been so mistreated for the past several months, had she not been on the razor’s edge of life and death even as she walked through that door. Then perhaps.

After all she suffered, she tragically could not withstand any more abuse.

Todt shot Fruehauf in the chest, and, wide-eyed, unbelieving of her situation, she fell.

As Fruehauf died, unremarked upon and unknown, Todt stood back up.

He turned the gun back on Bertholdt Stein and his entourage.

There was a resounding click. His magazine was empty.

That click, like a dog whistle, awakened something primal in the surrounding people.

Todt dropped the gun, and he was beset.

Dozens of people lunged for him, punched him, kicked him in a mob. He was brought to the ground, and beaten with furniture, beaten with the strong steel paperweights of the front desk, beaten with the hard snow boots of visiting guests, beaten with furniture. His face was smashed out of shape, his bones were crushed, his organs stamped to a pulp, he was beaten and beaten and beaten and beaten and beaten like his blood was for painting the floor. Men and women, wealthy guests and poor hotel workers, all destroyed Todt.

His green frog pin turned red and black and seemed to be swallowed by his own flesh.

All of the pain of the human race seemed to be inflicted upon Todt in that one instant.

Everything else was forgotten. Many crucial details would just, be forgotten.

Everything but this aberration, this act of God against their fake peace.

Fruehauf was beyond the help of a hospital, and yet, nobody even offered.

Stein had been practically dead on the spot, losing both heart and artery.


“Oh my god!”

Ramja and Cecilia stepped through into the hotel, minutes after the final shot.

Fruehauf was dead on the floor, away from the mob taking revenge on Niklas Todt.

She was ringed in a tidy circle of blood, like a macabre piece of art.

Ramja covered her mouth in shock, tears bursting from her eyes.

Unlike her people in Ayvarta, she was still innocent and unknowing to bloody violence.

Cecilia grabbed hold of Ramja and tried to pull her away.

She was not innocent to violence; and therefore she could at least shield her partner.

She took her back home, where they wept, huddled together, breathed deeply.

Back home, where they lived. They would live. They were alive. Shocks could pass.

Though they had seen something sudden and shocking they were unprepared for, they could manage to live through it. Nobody was lucky; but they were luckier than some.

For everyone, it was over and one. In an instant, and without satisfaction.

Ambulances came with nobody to heal. Everyone who was hurt was hurt to death.

Police came with nobody to question. Everyone who could explain was too dead to do so.

It was messy, sudden, random, despicable and vexing. Vexing! Who could understand?

There was no moment of grandeur where every life touched by this connected to form a tapestry with meaning attached. There was nothing revelatory; everything was just swallowed in the silent trauma of moving on and forward every day in a sick society. Everyone felt helpless to do anything except hope there would be no more shocks.

If there was one historical angle that could be concrete in year 2031, it was the impact on the presidential race. And yet election analysts, wary of politicizing the incident or implicating the President, which would have been dangerous and unfair in their view, were brief and nearly silent on the matter of Stein, and the politics of the election year.

All that anyone knew was that the constant of the Solstice War was extended yet again.

Could the Solstice War have been ended by Bertholdt Stein in 2031-32 Nocht?

That would remain a question for the idle time of the historian, not for the profession.


Previous Part || Next Part

The Legions of Hell — Generalplan Suden

This chapter contains scenes of violence and death, as well as a mention of suicidal ideation.


25th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 DCE, Night

Solstice Dominance – Postill Square

A bonfire raged in the massive common square outside of the main barracks. Revolutionary Guard and KVW soldiers stood around it, staring into it, quiet, seemingly pensive. They threw badges, patches, identifications into the flames in protest.

Their old lives as part of the government were over.

Men and women looked on at their comrades before taking their turns.

There were similar expressions across every face, difficult to read, regardless of whether KVW or Revolutionary Guard. Both the black-uniformed and red-and-gold uniformed troops looked the same, and had similar training. They had similar opinions about the events in the city. Warden Kansal had given them orders, and they would follow them. It was impossible that a disloyal thought could cross their minds.

Those who were used to the eccentricities of KVW-conditioned people, though, could see signs of anxiety. Pacing, lack of sleep and loss of appetite, reluctant eye contact.

They were humans still, after all. They feared for the future.

Everyone resisting the Civil Council traveled to the far north of the city, assembling in makeshift barracks around Postill Square, a grand plaza dedicated to the Revolutionary Guards who had fought so bravely to defeat the White Army in the Ayvartan Civil War. Armaments Hill loomed in the background, opening its doors to supply them. Trucks were still arriving around the area, carrying police and Revolutionary Guards from across the vast capital city. An army growing to almost 200,000 troops built up, unit by unit, with the ten divisions of the Revolutionary Guards making up the bulk, along with several divisions of police rearmed as KVW soldiers, and the 3rd KVW Mechanized Division.

It was an army that could have conquered the city it had sworn to protect.

Instead, under orders from Warden Kansal, they abdicated their positions, essentially going on a mass labor strike. They would not abide the suspicious allegiances of the Civil Council – but they also did not mobilize to end it. They could not mobilize south to fight Nocht even if they wanted to – their rail capacity was at its limits, and any other mode of transportation would not be enough to ferry them. Their action so far was only protest.

There was only one enemy in sight, and they chose to fight it in a different fashion.

The Warden knew that the city administration was reeling from this mass betrayal.

The Civil Council had always loved the police and guards, so courteous and loyal, perfect in their demeanor and professional in their duties. The Civil Council loved obedience and order and they let their guard down around anyone after they obeyed enough orders and followed enough regulations. But who established them? Who trained them?

These things could not be removed by simply changing jurisdictions and making new uniforms. The Revolutionary Guard and Police accepted severance from the KVW because Kansal allowed it to happen. She allowed them to become part of the Civil Council, she allowed herself to become separated from her followers this way, because they were still loyal to her throughout. Warden Kansal’s trump card was always poorly hidden.

It was disbelief that kept suspicion at bay.

She counted on a lack of understanding, first and foremost.

She was always blunt. She hid only because people opted not to see her. Always those eyes had overlooked her for one reason or another. Perhaps because she was a woman; perhaps because in the past she had been injured, altering the functioning of her body. Perhaps because she seemed foolish and brutish and unsuited to scheming.

How could this one woman control hundreds of thousands of people?

How could she, with the snap of a finger, organize them to turn their backs on everything they committed themselves to for years without an inkling of visible rebellion?

Short of magic, it was simply not possible.

Across the last five years everyone was certain that the Police was the Police and the Revolutionary Guard the Revolutionary Guard. The KVW had been broken and shrunk.

Short of magic, indeed.

It was not magic, but much of it might as well have been. It had worked miraculously.

Now the Warden stared out at the consequences of her decision. From the guard tower on Armaments Hill, her temporary new home, she watched as the guardians of the city gathered in this strip of land below, to live away from their police stations, from their depots, from everything still nominally owned by the Civil Council. To protest; to strike.

An army, essentially, on strike; and a city visibly bereft of their stewardship.

Crime was always low, and grew lower the more people discovered that socialism was apparently here to stay, and that it was largely taking care of them. Would people revert to barbarity without them? Certainly not. But they would see the movement. They would understand that things were changing, and perhaps for the worse.

Perhaps, now freed from hunger, they would take notice of the politics around them.

There would be anxiety and tension; the violence of the world upon the human mind.

Violence could bring change.

Daksha Kansal felt that violence in her own mind, and it made it hard to understand her own thoughts. Other people could see a continuity of their experiences, and they could analyze the torrent of information that led them to action. Daksha’s whole life felt as if she could only see it through cracked glass. She felt an existential pain when she tried to think about what she had done, the faces she had seen, the promises she had made.

She thought of the people who stewarded her, and what they would think.

Fundamentally, she had failed Ayvarta.

“Among all religions, the Messians, the Ancestor-Worshipers, the Spiritists, the Diyam, the Hudim; all of them believe that the world was forged in fire. I don’t believe, but I understand what they see in that first flame, the World Flame, that their Gods used to forge what would become the world. I can see why they think we all rose from fire.”

Behind her, Admiral Kremina Qote looked up from a long table that had become her new desk. Despite how quickly Kremina spoke and how little she thought about what she would say, her words always had meaning for Kremina.

She gave her a subdued smile, looking wistfully at the floor.

“Well. One way or another, the whole world is likely burning now.” Kremina said.

“Indeed. Was this trajectory inevitable? Or, had we been stronger, could we have built something more lasting? I feel guilty that I allowed things to come to this.”

“Daksha, this is not over yet, we have not–”

Daksha raised her hand to stop her, all the while continuing to speak.

“As a child I saw people build and rebuild only to face continuing destruction. I perpetuated it myself. I have always felt myself drawn to violence and scarred by violence. I have committed horrible, horrible acts. Could the world be changed by anything else?”

“Are you going to overthrow them?” Kremina asked suddenly. “I would support you.”

Daksha paused. She broke eye contact, staring at a candle on the table.

“I don’t want to. I wanted revolution to end the violence. But I can’t seem to escape it.”

Daksha’s mind was like a cipher but Kremina was closer to earth. Her feelings were tangible. Kremina felt ashamed of herself for a moment, but she also felt strongly that this violence was necessary. When she was younger she thought she saw virtue in compromise, but tension now cut through her restraint and made her optimism appear naive.

She hated the ridiculous government that had needled its way to influence over Ayvarta. She hated the passivity she felt in interacting with them on their level. Were they not revolutionaries? Why not murder them all? Why not run right into council, and excise all of those irrelevant fools from the world. What was the worth of an election where people chose between hacks who had simply swapped into a new political aesthetic?

“We need to put a stop to this while we still have land to fight over.” Kremina insisted.

“People need to be spared this cycle.” Daksha said. “People cannot grow like I have, feeling what I do. They need stability. When the world changes they need to see it that it is not just fire that does it. People aren’t phoenixes: they can’t keep rising healthily out of fire and ashes. They should not have to burn to a crisp to see the world grow better. This is why we are merely striking. I want to believe we can change this without more war.”

“I know your trepidation, Daksha, but in this case I am coming to believe that more radical action might be required. We need major changes. The Collaborators sympathize with Nocht: I can feel it. Their ambivalence is only that if Nocht takes over, they have no guarantee that it will be their Empire again. Kaiserin Trueday will not spare them. They don’t care about their own people; all they want is to reposition themselves for privilege, morphing to take advantage of whatever environment they’re in, like chameleons.”

“That might be a little harsh.” Daksha said. She was treading lightly.

It felt very fake and unlike her.

Kremina scoffed at this. “Can we be truly so sure? Don’t you also feel this from them?”

Daksha turned away again, her eyes fixed on the black, moonless sky overhead.

Even the stars were bleak. Light from the bonfire stretched far across the square and shadows stretched with it. Passersby put on a play on the walls with their every movement across the great fire. Even now she was trying to protect Kremina. Between them there were many dynamics clashing; they were lovers, state partners, military minds, comrades. They had been so many things together and occupied so many roles toward on another. Kremina thought Daksha’s distance misguided. But she said no word of obvious criticism.

“What will it take then for us to take action?” Kremina demanded.

“I want the Council to collapse and make way for us to take over and conduct this war right.” Daksha said. “But I don’t want a mass murder to carve that path for us.”

“It’s not a mass murder! It’s a revolution!” Kremina said.

She could tell Daksha was not listening to her in full.

The Warden had a tired, dreaming look in her eyes.

“I am putting my hopes on Nakar. I’m not religious, yet I foolishly desire a sign from her. She showed us a sign before, didn’t she? As a child, we saw in her the power to destroy something that seemed eternal, and to erect something better in its place.”

“She forgot everything.” Kremina said. She spoke in an almost pleading voice. “Her powers might have died along with the Empire. You are elevating her to a position that we are not sure she can take; or that she even wants. We are an army, Daksha!”

“I know. I know it is irrational. But I will give her time, down in Bada Aso. I will give her time to win for us. Upon her I want to pin my humanity. It is unfair to use her again like this, after all we have done. But I want to believe that there can be something for us other than a second civil war with an even greater foe waiting to pounce upon us.”

Kremina gazed upon her lover with pain.

Both of them buckled under the weight of this crisis.

“I understand that. But if you won’t do what is necessary, then I might have to.”

Daksha smiled. Kremina stood resolute.

“I don’t wish that blood on anyone’s hands.” Daksha said.

“When the time comes it will be my decision. We tried our best for all these years to work with them, and to try to rationally reconcile all of our positions for the good of people. We have housed them and fed them, but have we truly freed them? Or are they simply waiting in the interim between one set of tyrants and another burgeoning set? That is my fear, Daksha, when I speak to these councilors and when I engage their politics.”

“Let us wait for a while. Worse comes to worse, I promise I will be history’s monster.”

Her attitude changed easily when others swore themselves to extremes. Daksha was still protecting her, still trying to be the first to die and still making herself the monster, the face of the evil the world saw in them. Kremina saw her then as she had seen her over twenty years ago, when they made their secret pact.

She was a low-ranked naval officer, slim and untouched by the world. Daksha was tall and strong, her skin a warm brown like baked leather, her hair black as the night. One of her arms had been broken and now it moved with difficulty. One of her legs was stiff from injuries. She was awkward in pure motion, but with her own grace, taken in aggregate. Strong, passionate; that was the Daksha she knew.

But she saw herself always as the monster.

“Can we wait? Kremina?”

She reached out her hand. Kremina took it.

Their fingers entwined. Irrationally, they would wait.

As these two souls tried desperately to see through the fog suddenly surrounding each other, suddenly clouding the world they thought they knew, ambivalence reigned around the capital. Everyone wanted to see a future ahead of them. As the patches of the police and revolutionary guards burnt in the bonfire outside, everyone waited, almost religiously, for a sign that might justify a course of action, for better or worse.

Their eyes fell on Bada Aso.

Perhaps there was another monster there in whom they could all count.

There was still a chance that Madiha Nakar could win in Bada Aso.

Her victory would be a victory for Daksha and Kremina.

Then the Council would have to acknowledge that success, and their own failures.

It was either that, or another bloody civil war.


24th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 DCE

Nocht Federation Republic of Rhinea – Citadel Nocht

Citadel Nocht was alive with the ringing of phones and the crackling of noisy radios.

Under a constant barrage of snow the massive spiraling black building that was the nerve center of the Federation housed thousands of workers, hundreds of guards; its offices fielded millions of questions and gave billions of answers through kilometers upon kilometers of telephone and telegraph wire. These were the neurons that carried impulse for the movements of Nocht’s twelve state organs and its untold amounts of limbs, the most important of which, at the present included the Schwarzkopf secret police, the Brown Shirt police, the Vereinigte Heer, the Luftlotte and Bundesmarine.

At the crown of this man-made encephalon was the office of the Federation President, elected by the voters of each state. Largely, this organ existed to digest a world’s worth of information and within the day both inform this singular man, and transform his reactions into a world’s worth of policies, answers, and, lately, retributions.

This was the machine of the Libertaire technocrats, the temple of their industry, the proving ground of their science. Atop this machine, the exceptional man seethed; President Lehner had received a world’s worth of news and it was not news that he liked.

A wave of terrorist attacks in Lubon had slowed the tottering nation of elven faeries even further than expected; in Yu-Kitan resistance from the Jade Throne and the communist guerillas in the jungles of the interior had forced the Hanwan Shogun to commit more troops and reduce his own commitment to the larger war. While attacks on the major ports of northern Ayvarta were still planned, supporting landings would be cancelled.

In Nocht itself, Lehner’s foolish, misguided voters broke out in riots over a tightening on banks and groceries to prevent malcontents from hoarding resources the nation required. His brown shirts and black heads had gone swiftly to work, but the minor episodes across the Republics of the Federation left a sour taste in his mouth. He thought his people better educated than this; he would have to take new and special efforts to instill upon them proper and patriotic values. He needed his population capable of supporting a war.

War was the current bright spot; a week’s worth of fighting was going beautifully.

But Lehner did not pride himself on complacency.

He found problem areas, and he seethed at them too.

To his office he summoned General Aldrecht Braun, chief of the Oberkommando Des Heeres. He was the kind of man that Lehner hated. Facing him was like peering at a museum piece. He was thin as a stick and straight as one, his skin graying, pitted, covered in cracks. He had an old world flair to him, a chiseled countenance with a dominating mustache that seemed to link to his sideburns, and a dozen medals on his black coat none of which Lehner had given him. Through the double doors he strode proudly into the office, chin up, maintaining eye contact; he trod casually upon the red and blue stripes of the Federation, over the twelve stars of the Republics, over the iron Eagle. All of the Presidents peered down at him from their portraits. He did not sit before Lehner’s desk.

Always, he stood, and always, he stared, keeping Lehner’s eyes.

Miserable old codger; Lehner could’ve spat at him.

But it would not do to give anyone that satisfaction.

It would have looked bad in the papers.

“Mr. President, it is always an honor to be in your presence. I am prepared to clarify any report made to you. I assume you have received most of our current information.”

“I have,” Lehner replied, smiling, “Actually, wanted to talk to you about that, big fella. I want you to do some of that clarifying you speak of. See, I’ve spoken with some ladies and gentlemen about a few planes; well, actually not a few, quite a lot. A disturbing amount of planes, none of which are flying, would you happen to know anything about that?”

President Lehner always spoke in a rapid-fire tone, as though his thoughts would run away from him if he did not hurry. He spoke quickly and easily without a hitch.

“I heard that Air Admiral Kulbert has grounded the Luftlotte due to losses.”

“Yeah, I know! Funny that! I told him to ground it after he gave me this ridiculous number of planes he lost to try to help your boys break into a city that, by the way, they still don’t seem to have broken into at all. Six hundred sorties two days ago, three hundred yesterday, and a few token ones today. Sounds like he was busy; and you weren’t.”

“First incursions into Bada Aso begin tomorrow, Mr. President. All has its due time.”

“So,” President Lehner started to laugh, a nervous, haughty laugh, an effort to conceal his rising fury, “so Braun, tell me about those planes, huh? Don’t try to divert me from those planes, right? I love planes, I have a plane right here in my desk because I fucking love planes. So let’s be honest. Tell me about how we lost almost five hundred planes in three days, and then if you’d be so kind, tell me why I haven’t sacked you. I’m eager to listen! Always eager to listen. I love my people. I don’t love losing five hundred fucking planes,” He exhaled thoroughly, “but I can give you the benefit of the doubt.”

General Braun was direct. In a matter-of-fact voice, he spoke. “We have not lost 500 planes, mister President. We completely lost 250 planes; plus 100 critically damaged, 50 lightly damaged, 100 planes grounded due to crew injury, out of 1000 planes–”

President Lehner interrupted him. “Word of advice? This angle is not saving your job right now.” He picked up a model airplane from his desk, and raised his hand up with it. “This is your job right now. And this is where it’s going.”

He dropped the model; it smashed on the desktop.

General Braun winced as the pieces flew from the desk.

Several fell in front of his shoes.

“My apologies, Mr. President. I do not have the full details, but from what I understand the air defense network in Bada Aso seemed to have become much more efficient than we anticipated. Our highest losses occurred on the very first day, and lessened afterward.”

“Well, yeah, because you flew less sorties. Otherwise you’d have pissed away even more of my planes, maybe even all of my planes. All because you got some bad info.”

“With all due respect sir, I do not command the air troops nor am I in charge of the intelligence gathering for the air troops. Kulbert might be able to tell you more.”

President Lehner smiled. “You’re right Braun. You’re right. Let’s just press on, shall we? We’ll talk about those planes more in the future, because they won’t ever fly again over the Adjar dominance without my explicit authorization, in order to prevent more of these thick-headed, wasteful operations. So, we have all the time in the world, don’t we?”

General Braun did not flinch. He remained standing.

President Lehner’s own frenetic pace worked against him, and he felt an almost physical pain at the thought of remaining on the subject of the damaged planes. Quickly they turned to discussing the ground forces. Braun displayed an intimate knowledge of the city of Bada Aso, the final bastion of the communist resistance in Adjar.

The city had not yet been seriously challenged from the ground, and the forces retreating pell-mell from the rest of the region had gathered there to make their stand; or, Lehner assumed, they had been merely told not to run any further on the pain of death, and thus the pathetic flight of the communist forces by coincidence had happened to end there. It’s what he would have done in the situation. Braun boasted about his advantages.

“We know the city and surrounding regions like the backs of our hands now.”

“I’m skeptical.” Lehner replied. Had he really had such knowledge of the city, the air troops would not have been caught off-guard. Hubris alone did not account for that.

“We have first-hand information from former communists.” Braun said.

Lehner blinked with surprise. “I love having people inside places; I don’t understand how we did it though. I thought these people were fanatica. Can you trust anything they say? Who did you manage to rope in anyway? Are you picking through the peasants?”

“A few officers from the Adjar command, and a few captured soldiers. Apparently the invasion caused them to reconsider their allegiances. It’s not surprising to me. Adjar was one of the most rebellious Dominances of the old Ayvartan Empire. When the Empire fell, Adjar moved quickly to secede into its own country, same with Cissea and Mamlakha. But Adjar didn’t get away with it: the communists tightened the screws on them. They would win eventually, but Adjar resisted enough that they settled things with a truce instead and formed a collaborative government, making certain concessions to the rebellious territories. There have been seeds of anti-communist rebellion in Adjar ever since, though the Ayvartan KVW has swiftly rooted out and crushed many of these over time.”

“Love a good history lesson, but cut to the chase here. What have ‘our people’ done for us yet, huh? They didn’t seem to be much help to our planes these past few days.”

“Well, Mr. President, they aren’t magic. But for one, we have some decent basic maps of Bada Aso, as well as some understanding of the forces inside. Their intelligence has been valuable in guiding our pace, Mr. President. And that is why Bada Aso is not yet under attack. We’ve made preparations. Tomorrow, the hammer will fall upon it.”

“Battlegroup Ox are our opponents, right? Led by that ore smuggler, Gowon. A pretty farcical enemy if you ask me. Thanks to him we have details on Ayvartan weapons.”

“Indeed. Gowon has proven very valuable and very predictable so far. He saw us, turned tail and ran from the border. But we’ve got him cornered now. He has about eight good divisions and two resoundingly pathetic tank divisions at his disposal. All of them are holed up inside the city. We will advance from the south and force a sizable foothold within the city, and once we have tied up their forces, we will sweep in from the east across the Kalu. Von Sturm is the primary architect of this assault. Meist, Anschel and Von Drachen stand in support. Lead elements are the Blue Corps, 6th Grenadier and 13th Panzergrenadier; in the Kalu we will use the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions.”

“I’m not fond of that Drachen guy,” President Lehner said, “I read his file. Actually, my secretary read his file, and then she told me I wouldn’t be fond of him. Guess what? I wasn’t. She’s a sharp lady; anyway, I don’t like him. He’s weird. Did you know that’s not even his name? Tell me about a man who chooses to name himself Von Drachen and won’t tell you his real name. Von Drachen? How pretentious; I’m not fond of him at all, Braun, not at all. I don’t like him or his fake name. His grammatically poor fake name.”

“He was commissioned by your predecessor sir. He practically delivered Cissea to us in a few weeks after he defected from them, and has been fully trustworthy since then.”

“Well, y’know, sometimes you have to recognize geniuses even if they’re assholes. The man’s got a gift for killing people. But I wouldn’t give him a front-line position in a really critical urban operation. There’s a difference, it’s like friends you drink with and friends you show your parents. And friends who haven’t betrayed anyone before, too.”

Braun nodded deferringly.

“Then do you wish for me to impress upon Von Sturm this difference?”

“Oh, no, that’d set us back right now. Just. Ugh. Ignore I said anything. This was a stupid angle. I should just keep my feelings to myself more often, I suppose.”

“If you say so, Mr. President.”

President Lehner was fickle, and he knew it, but he let his moods carry him away. In speech he let his wild flourishes of the tongue go where they went, and when there came a time to confront an issue his massive staff could not quantify and break down, he let his instincts dictate the course. His mood had not yet failed him; he had rode it over opposition that deemed him too young and brash for the office, and now he rode it over a people in his eyes too old and worn to capably fight back against it. It was nature, science, progress; it was manifest that the new men would defeat and replace the old.

He was the New Man.

Behind the big desk, President Lehner felt compelled to extend discourse to his lessers. What was meant to be a quick chewing out and terrorizing of a hated officer, turned into an hours-long discussion on war and strategy in which General Braun almost impressed the President. Not in his ability to talk or conduct war, which Lehner largely thought overrated: but rather, in his ability to stand, unblinking, and speak for extended periods.

What a hilarious old buffoon.


25th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 DCE

Adjar Dominance – Outskirts of Bada Aso, South-Center District

Gray clouds loomed overhead, but the Kalu region and Bada Aso received little of the expected rains. Under the muggy gloom, a new army advanced across the wet grassland and over the muddy old roads, tramping in shallow puddles and across broken street.

From the southern approach the city was eerily quiet. The Landsers could hear every mechanical struggle and hiccup and neigh of their long convoy of vehicles and horses. An entire Battalion rode to battle that day, comprised of over 800 men in vehicles and horse mounts, but nobody alive met them through their long drive into the city.

Even the wind was quiet, picking up little except foul smells of day-old smothered fires. Gradually they left the countryside behind and pushed into the urbanization of Bada Aso. Dirt roads turned black with sturdy pavement; clusters of buildings grew thicker around them, though few stood taller than burnt out foundation.

The 6th Grenadier Division’s 2nd Battalion crept through the ruins of the outer neighborhoods of Bada Aso, finding several kilometers worth of ghost town. It seemed like three out of every four buildings had been smashed by bombs, and the debris spilled across the streets. Near the city limits the mounds and stretches of debris that crossed the landscape were largely surmountable, either navigable enough for the convoy to run over or near a clean road by which the march could circumvent the obstacle entirely.

With every block bypassed the ruins raised new challenges. In the thicker urbanization there were larger buildings and tighter crossings. The 6th Grenadiers found themselves considerably slowed down by their mounts and vehicles. Soon the Landsers stopped entirely. They found themselves faced with a wall of rubble from a tenement collapse.

Captain Aschekind gave the dismount order.

At the head of the convoy, a single Squire half-track unloaded its compliment of ten men, who quickly surveyed the wall. Aschekind was among them. Other infantry squads mounted on horses and a few on trucks dismounted and assembled in turn. In all there were over forty of these squads, accounting for more than half the men in the battalion.

Making up the rest were support groups of Norgler machine gunners, a small cadre of snipers, and far behind them at the rear of the march, communications officers and the logistics train. Food, ammunition, medical; over a kilometer behind for safety. They would start putting down wires for field telephone, and coordinate the arrival of reinforcements and the deployment of higher-level assets. Second Battalion lacked any kind of personal heavy anti-tank guns or heavy artillery support, all of it waiting to be released piecemeal by the Divisional command that lagged outside of the city, dozens of kilometers away.

Horse-drawn carts would have to pull many of these weapons into the city, and would also be responsible for towing them between reserve zones and combat areas.

In the midst of all this, Private Kern Beckert was overwhelmed with uncertainty.

Nocht was moving. Boots hit the ground in Bada Aso.

To the east and west, the Cissean Azul corps protected their flanks. They had arrived first, and they were likely fighting even as the Nochtish men dismounted. For the 6th Grenadier Division’s 2nd Battalion the most crucial objective had been saved. They would drive down the center and secure the major thoroughfare of Bada Aso, winning operational freedom for Nocht’s motor and horse pool, and for their armored forces.

Or at least that had been the theory; given the poor terrain conditions it seemed much more complicated than that. Planting your flag on a road did not make it more navigable.

As his fellow Landsers dismounted, checked their weapons and awaited orders to march, Kern faced the rubble in front of him and the debris-choked expanse of the city around him, and even in the midst of hundreds of his fellow men, he felt remarkably small.

He knew none of the other men. He hardly spoke to them. He felt his burning in his gut when he thought of speaking to anybody. What would he tell them?

Riveting stories from the corn farms of Oberon?

He put up a tough front, because everyone else seemed to do the same.

There was idle chatter from men who had fought alongside one another before and had some familiarity. This was Kern’s first combat action. He had been assigned to 2nd Battalion just a few days ago from the boat-bound reserve forces.

What was he doing in Ayvarta?

He had thought the world smaller than it was. It was too big for a farmer’s boy.

He shouldn’t have run from home.

Before he knew it, Captain Aschekind called for a forward Company, over 200 men; and Kern found himself moving, mimicking the eager men around him. They joined their Captain at the edge of the rubble, and began to climb the high mound. Aschekind was a monument of a man, broad-shouldered, thick-armed, and imposing in his officer’s coat. His fists seemed more frightful than his pistol. An angry red scar crossed his left cheekbone. His expression was grim and focused, betraying little of what he might have thought of the men around him. Kern felt helpless around him, and instinctually feared him.

The Captain hardly seemed to climb; instead he took determined steps up the slippery rubble, crunching with his feet on the dusty cement, brick, wood and jagged rebar debris.

Kern was just an ordinary man; a boy, some would even say, barely twenty years. Blonde and blue-eyed and clean-faced, athletic, or so he once thought. Perhaps the sort of man that a man like Aschekind once was, before war turned them into moving stone. He climbed with his hands and his feet, as though crawling up the mound. Dust and small rocks fell in the wake of faster climbers and momentarily dazed him. He felt the sharp rock and bits of metal scrape him through his gray uniform. His kit felt heavier than ever.

He had a grenade, he had his rifle and he had various accouterments like rations and rope and a battery-powered torch. He had extra ammunition for his squad’s light machine gun. He was exhausted a dozen hand-holds up the rubble, perhaps nine or ten meters from the floor. Kern struggled to catch his breath. Groaning men wedged up past him.

He cast eyes around himself at his fellow climbers.

He could hardly tell who was even in his own squad.

Atop the mound of rubble they had a commanding view of the surrounding area. It was hotter and drier up there than on the road. There was a breath-taking view from over the rubble, but he wouldn’t get to cherish it for long. Aschekind tersely ordered the men to drop to their stomachs and crawl so they would not be spotted atop the mound. Forward observers moved front, surveying with binoculars the streets ahead.

From their position they relayed that they could see the first Ayvartan defensive line, comprising various shapes of sandbag barriers around heavy machine guns and a couple of light mortars. Observers reported that the communists had based their defense in two echelons of fifty troops, including, regrettably, both men and women, and these cadres stood each across from the other on a tight, three-road intersection like a side-ways ‘T.’

Overturned buildings, mounds of rubble and shattered streets that would block the full brunt of the enemy’s attack covered half of the way to the enemy’s defenses at the intersection. Then just as starkly the ruins stopped for hundreds of meters. For significant length of the way to the intersection the assault run over pristine terrain.

Kern listened with growing trepidation.

Captain Aschekind, however, was unmoved by this obstacle.

“Establish the eight centimeter mortars here. All of the forward rifle squads here will advance undettered but with caution. We may yet surprise them.” Aschekind said.

Kern and his fellow Landsers crawled along the top of the mound and slid carefully down the other end to the ground. Immediately they took cover in whatever rubble they could find. Aschekind was right: the Ayvartans had not yet spotted them.

Methodically the rifle squads advanced toward the line.

Squad leaders moved ahead with their designated scout partners, followed by the gun group, consisting of the Company’s Norgler machine gunners. Everyone moved from cover to cover. And at first there was a king’s ransom of potential cover: a collapsed piece of the road, drenched in water from broken pipes; the overturned facade of a building, creating a mound behind which a man was invisible; husks of blown-out vehicles; and open ruins and the spaces between and around buildings, acting as cement barriers.

Squad by squad the Landsers moved forward, each treading the expert paths of the men before them. Kern found himself pressed into the middle of the column near the Gewehrsgruppe, the machine gun group responsible for volume fire to cover the Company’s advance. All of them had heavy packs, and walked in twos.

Up ahead the “headquarters” consisting of various leading officers made the first moves to new cover, and directed everyone; when to run, when to duck, when individual squads should tighten or loosen formation. Behind his place in the line followed riflemen like Kern with no special designation. It was a textbook march, and they carried it out with professional character. Over two-hundred men, moving almost in secret.

Everything was going perfectly.

Despite himself, Kern felt a strangely renewed sense of confidence when he saw everyone moving as the pamphlets showed and as they had practiced in drills. Perhaps by rote he could survive the battle ahead. Perhaps he had learned to be a soldier. No longer was he the farm boy running from responsibility; he was a Nochtish Grenadier.

Tactical movement carried the Company far into the rubble, but cover grew sparser as they went. About a hundred meters from the collapsed tenement, they had only waist-high cover to count on, and just a few meters from that they would have nothing.

Captain Aschekind moved to the center of the men. Beneath the notice of the Ayvartans the men huddled in the edge of the rubble, scouting out the defensive line. Aschekind ordered for word to be passed around the Company that squad leaders and rifle groups (but not the machine gun groups) would cross the open terrain as fast as possible.

They could not count on any cover until they reached the sandbags: closing to assaulting distance was their only chance of success. Gun groups would remain behind in supporting positions. Through whispers passed around their hiding places, man to man, the entire forward company was soon appraised of the situation. Captain Aschekind ordered the assault to begin with a mortar attack on the defensive line followed by a charge.

Kern closed his eyes. He was soaked in sweat. It traveled down his nose and lips.

Captain Aschekind raised his portable radio to his mouth.

“Ordnance, fire at will. Smoke to cover us, and then high explosive on the enemy.”

Seconds after Aschekind’s command, Kern heard the chunk of deployed mortar rounds dispelling the eerie silence in the city, flying from their tubes atop the tenement rubble. Moments later they crashed back to earth, throwing up smoke to cover the advance of the Landsers and crashing across the Ayvartan’s defensive line. 2nd Battalion’s first few shells on the enemy did little more than scatter sandbags and awaken the communists.

Ayvartan machine gunners took their places and opened fire on the rubble and across the long, smooth street before them, their red tracers flying through the smoke.

Bereft of cover, it was like a killing field. Only the smoke prevented a massacre.

“Forward company, charge!” Aschekind shouted. “Over the walls, into their faces!”

From behind cover the Landsers rose and threw themselves headfirst into the fight.

As one body the Company charged ahead from their hiding places and crossed immediately into the thickening smoke over the connecting road, tackling the open stretch as fast as possible to assault their objective. No longer was theirs the movement of a methodical force, advancing efficiently in a column expertly hidden from the enemy.

Amid the fire they started a glunt stampede.

Behind them, standing atop rubble, several squads worth of machine gunners fired continuously over and around the running Landsers, directing their fire across the smoke and trying to silence the flashing muzzles of the Ayvartan defenders. Each burst of allied gunfire bought precious seconds for the desperate riflemen to run. It was all they could do.

Vorwarts!” Roared the Captain, running with his men into the death and dark.

Into the smoke advanced this march of close to two hundred men.

Kern seemed caged in the center of the charge, anxious from the thunderous noise of so many footsteps. Whistling mortar ordnance crashed intermittently in their ranks, pulverizing men. Sparse but deadly fire seemed to pick off soldiers like a finger from the heavens, indecisively falling, tapping a man in the shoulder, the legs, or the head, and taking off whatever was touched. Every few seconds a choppy stream of red gunfire from an Ayvartan machine gun took two or three men in a visible line of blood and tracer light.

Then the enemy paused to reload their machine guns or to hide from retaliatory fire launching from the Norgler machine guns. Reloading was quick; soon their bullets soared across the road once again, sweeping blindly through the smokescreen for men to kill.

Landsers in the press fired their weapons in a desperate bid to open ground for the charge. Most riflemen stood little chance of hitting a target, but the Light Machine Gunners in each Squad, ducking near the edges of the road, could match the Ayvartan’s rate of fire for the briefest moments before having to take off running again to avoid a killing spray.

Ahead of the march a few men blindly threw grenades far out in front of them as they could, but the explosions did little good. Mortar shells from the rubble behind the Grenadiers fell intermittently and inaccurately on the communists, proving at best a momentary inconvenience to one or two of the positions fiercely defending the road.

Everything they threw at the line was only a minimal distraction that bought the Landsers small chunks of time between deaths and deafening blasts and seething tracers.

Every few seconds of Ayvartan stillness took the company a few bounding steps closer to the objective ahead, and every few seconds of Ayvartan activity claimed lives.

Kern raised his rifle and threw himself forward.

He coughed in the smoke and held his breath when he could.

His head was spinning, and he took clumsy steps. He felt as though constantly falling, hurling headlong down the road. Around him men fell to their knees and onto their hands, cognizant of their deaths for mere seconds before uttering their final cries. Kern cowered from streams of machine gun fire and narrowly avoided mortar blasts. Fortune smiled upon him somehow; he pushed toward the edge of the cloud, and found a shadow behind the Ayvartan line that he could attack. Closing in on the enemy, he engaged.

He raised his carbine and fired a shot while running, hitting nothing, working the bolt; he saw his target, the shadow, flinch in the distance, and he fired again to no avail.

Crying out, Kern pushed himself to the brink of physical pain and finally overtook the sandbag wall, leaping over and shoving a man from behind the tripod of an empty machine gun. Over a dozen landsers overcame the defenses and bore down on the enemy with him, throwing themselves over their mortars and rushing their machine guns.

Kern thrust his rifle out in front of him, coming to blows with one of the defending communists. He swung the barrel of his rifle like a club in a frenzied melee, and around him it seemed every man was fighting with fists and elbows and knives rather than guns.

There was no bayonet on the end of Kern’s rifle, and his opponent proved stronger.

Bare forearms blocked the feeble, clubbing blows of the landser, and quick hands grasped the weapon, punishing the boy’s repeated, pathetic flailing. With a titanic pull, the communist tore the firearm from Kern’s hands, and used it to push the landser back, throwing him against the sandbag wall as though he was weightless.

He then turned the carbine around.

More men vaulted the low sandbag wall, and Captain Aschekind was one.

He leaped over Kern and charged in with his bare hands. He threw himself against Kern’s opponent like a charging bull, quickly pulling down the stolen rifle with one mighty hand to avoid a fatal shot, and with another taking the man by the throat, choking and lifting him off the ground. Kern’s stolen carbine shot into the earth and spared his life.

Aschekind squeezed the man’s windpipe and with a mighty heave he threw the man three whole meters away. Like a stone the unconscious communist struck another man to the floor, and the two of them were stabbed dead by rushing landsers using their bayonets and knives. Kern stared helplessly at the bloody brawl, fixated on the violence.

It seemed then that the company’s human wave had finally torn past the sandbag wall. With the communist’s machine guns and mortars tied up, the landsers rushed confidently ahead to threaten the intersection, stepping over the bodies of fallen friends and foes.

Aschekind did not immediately join them.

He half-turned to the sandbag wall and he threw Kern’s carbine against the boy.

“Bayonets before bravery, Landser.” He said, his voice deep and grim. “Make sure that you affix the knife point before your next charge unless you desire an early death.”

Hands shaking, Kern picked through his pockets for his bayonet, and snapped it into the lug before running ahead. He took cover inside one of the mortar rings.

Enemy fire resumed around him from the second echelon of Ayvartan defenders at the intersection. With the opposing forces poised on each side of the roads, the battle for the middle of the intersection was soon underway. Smoke cleared, and Kern could see several enemy squads with their men and women hidden behind post boxes and street lights, inside ruined buildings and even ducking behind fire hydrants. There were probably fifty or sixty more riflemen and women opposite the attacking landsers.

One ominous building stood almost intact across the intersection.

Kern saw communists run in.

From the second floor automatic fire soon rained down on the assault group.

Kern saw charging Grenadiers cut easily down.

Mid-run, several of the leading men turned tail, threw themselves down or grabbed what defenses they could. Few got lucky; butchered bodies littered the ground ahead.

“Hunker down! Fight from positions!” Aschekind shouted, leaping into the mortar pit with Kern. The Ayvartan machine gun across the intersection had a poor angle on them, and the sandbags stopped the enemy’s rounds, providing an adequate defense for the Captain and Kern. But it swept across the captured portions of the defensive line from commanding ground, pinning several riflemen behind a few scraps of cover.

At this range, their own gun groups could not support them well, and their mortars were far too inaccurate. It was the worst situation imaginable for Kern. Riflemen in a static fight without a base of automatic fire, against entrenched enemies. His fellow Landsers hid as well as they could and fired back, directed by Aschekind’s shouting.

Several men took shots at the machine gun, but its metal shield protected the gunner perfectly within the relatively narrow window. On the ground rifle shots deflected off cover on both sides. Kern loaded his own rifle and rose quickly from cover, taking a barely-aimed shot at the building. He hit the windowsill and hid again, working the bolt on his rifle.

Whenever the Ayvartan machine gun fired it issued a continuous tapping noise that sent a chill down his spine. Angry red tracers flew like lines of fire weaving over the air.

Their own fire grew sporadic and ineffective in the face of the communist opposition.

The Ayvartans had freedom of movement under the protection of their second-floor machine gun. They attacked with confidence, having the leisure to aim for targets, and they struck many more men than they lost. The Landsers were stuck. Communists began to encroach, inching closer whenever their machine gun suppressed the Grenadier’s side of the road. Nocht’s riflemen could hardly shoot back for fear of that second floor window.

Kern himself hardly knew where to shoot.

Whenever he peeked out of the pit he saw dozens of the enemy, all of them either moving under the cover of automatic fire, or entrenched in unassailable positions. Rifle bullets bit into the sandbags whenever he even thought of shooting. Whenever he ranged a good target, Kern found that he would have to hide again to work the bolt on his carbine, losing whatever chance he had of making a second or third shot on the same man.

His Captain seemed to have taken notice of his reticence in the face of the enemy.

“Give me that.” He scowled.

Aschekind yanked the rifle roughly from Kern’s grip.

He attached an old, worn-out metal adapter from his satchel to the end of Kern’s rifle, and to it, he attached an old-model grenade – Kern had seen this kind of weapon in pictures, but not in the field. He did not believe it was a standard procurement for them.

“Stay down,” the Captain warned. Kern ducked even lower in cover.

Captain Aschekind waited for a momentary lull in the Ayvartan’s machine gun fire, and he rose half out of cover, looking through the metal sight now sticking out from the front of the gun. He pressed the trigger and the old grenade launched out of the muzzle.

Soaring across the road in an arc the olde grenade crashed through the second floor window of the building across the intersection. A fiery explosion ruptured the wooden floor, and the machine gunner and the machine gun came crashing down to the ground level.

In an instant the communists had lost their fire support.

Without the machine gun the volume of Ayvartan fire slowed to little more than a few cracks from bolt-action battle rifles every couple of seconds, striking harmlessly against the dirt and into the sandbags. All around him Kern saw the Nochtish troops taking notice of the stark change in the level of ambient noise and turning to their fellows with surprise.

The Grenadiers grew bolder and the assault reawakened.

Those men huddling in cover rose out of it and fired for the first time in minutes; and those who had been fighting most fiercely before now redoubled their efforts, shooting and working their bolts with greater speed, and moving across to new cover. Squads developed a good rhythm of shooting men, covering for reloading landsers who would then return the favor. Men stepped from cover entirely and charged forward with their rifles out. They reached the center of the intersection, and threw grenades across. Many of them fell, wounded by close-range Ayvartan fire; but their throws blasted communists out of hiding.

Kern heard the ghastly chopping of the Norglers behind him.

Streams of automatic fire crossed the intersection.

All of the Gewehrsgruppe was moving up to support them.

Now the situation was fully reversed in their favor.

Pushed back and with their heavy weapons depleted, the Ayvartans became disorderly, and as their numbers began to fall, many retreated further and further out of the intersection until they abandoned it. Grenadiers crossed the street unopposed, taking to their knees and firing at the rapidly fleeing enemy. Both echelons of defense at the intersection had been suddenly ejected, and the 6th Grenadier’s 2nd Battalion claimed its first objective.

Once again the eerie silence fell over the city.

Without the machine guns and mortars there seemed to be nothing.

Captain Aschekind removed his grenade adapter and threw Kern’s rifle back into his hands as though he were discarding trash. He did not consider the boy any more than that and hardly looked at him while returning the arm. He made to leave the sandbag pit.

“Sir!” Kern pulled himself half-up the mortar pit. “Sir, what was that weapon?”

“An obsolete piece from an old war. We should have been able to do better.”

Captain Aschekind did not turn or look at him to address him. He walked coldly away.

Kern sighed. He was indeed still a farm boy; his presence had changed nothing here.

He left the mortar pit, and looked around the intersection. He had not attacked with his squadron; he didn’t even really know what squadron he was a part of. There were dead men behind him, and littered across the approach to the intersection, dead men over the sandbag walls and in the middle of the intersection. Platoon Commanders left their hiding places. He saw them counting. Kern himself counted, and he tallied at least seventy dead men.

There were a few lightly wounded men who had been grazed or clipped in the limbs and shoulders when moving out of cover to shoot; but in this assault it seemed that the dead would naturally far, far outnumber the wounded. Soon he caught the stench of blood.

Squads regrouped, but Kern saw quite a few people like himself, in disarray, standing apart from the carnage. A few men sat on the sides of the road with no one around and Kern didn’t know whether they had been wounded, or if they were just in shock.

He figured that too was a kind of wound.

Nobody counted them.

There were more people coming in. From the road that had cost them so much blood to claim, a column of new men marched calmly to the intersection. Some began to haul the bodies of the dead away, while others rushed to the wounded to lend treatment.

A horse-drawn cart appeared from one of the connecting roads to the intersection, carrying ammunition, grenades, and towing a small anti-tank gun behind itself. The rest of 2nd Battalion moved up. They were a legion walking into Hell, unknowing of the horrors herein. Nobody seemed to cover their mouths in disgust, or flinch away from bodies.

They hadn’t seen the fighting yet. They didn’t know.

Of course, Kern had seen it. And his own horror was imperceptible, mute and stunted. He heard a whistling inside his ear, becoming more pronounced from the transition from cacophony to silence. There was noise inside his head too, however, and he could not sort out his own thoughts quite yet. Nothing was silent for him yet. Idly he crossed the intersection to stare at Captain Aschekind’s handiwork inside the old building.

Kern looked down at the machine gunner, lying beneath the fallen weapon and bleeding from a dozen shrapnel wounds. He thought that it was the body of a woman.

He had heard tell that the Ayvartans pressed their own women to their cause, but he never believed he would see a woman die among soldiers as though she was a natural ally to the fighting men. He looked at her with silent fear. What kind of people were they?

What kind of person had she been?

Back again onto the intersection, he left behind the building and the corpse.

Nobody was counting the communist corpses.

Just off the intersection inside the husk of a concrete building a command post was being hastily assembled. From the horse-drawn cart three men carried out a heavy radio and set it under a hastily pitched tent. Laborers began to raise sandbags around it, while Aschekind ducked inside. Kern stood nearby. He could hear the radio crackling. Captain Aschekind reported their victory in low, terse, grunted words.

A superior officer replied; Kern realized he had heard the man’s voice before.

“Good. Aschekind, a Panzer Platoon will meet you at the intersection, and from there you will assault Matumaini Street. Von Drachen is on the move and will guard your flank. Control of Matumaini is essential. It will give us a central jumping-off point to attack the rest of the city. Matumaini is the first step in crushing the communists. Press forward, and do not stop! The Cisseans will assure your momentum and then link up with you.”

Captain Aschekind appeared for a moment frustrated with the radio. He expressed no disdain verbally. Kern saw only a flicker of anger in his eyes, and found him stressing the radio handset’s plastic shell with his powerful grip. A crack formed on the device.

“Acknowledged, General Von Sturm.” Aschekind said.

“Good.” Von Sturm said. “I knew I could count on the Butcher of Villalba.”

Kern thought he saw another brief convulsion on the Captain’s face, but perhaps he only imagined it. Major General Von Sturm cut contact, and Captain Aschekind looked down the road ahead of them, past the intersection. He strained his eyes, turned his head.

He thrust a radio into Kern’s hands.

Kern was surprised; he did not think the Captain even knew he was there.

“Follow me. Keep that on hand, and keep close. We will press the attack soon.”

Kern nodded his head. Captain Aschekind departed down the road, and Kern followed. Men followed them; it seemed without further orders that the entire company was marching ahead again. Matumaini Street was the next target. Kern’s hands were still shaking.


25th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 DCE

Adjar Dominance – Battlegroup Ox HQ “Madiha’s House”

Ruined blocks of old buildings flanked the broad thoroughfare up to Madiha’s House.

In some respects this proved advantageous, as it improved the field of view from the higher floors. It was even harder to hide from the kilometers-long sight-line of the FOB, and it made the headquarters an even worthier prize. But Madiha had established herself in one of the forward offices, and she had the window unblocked. She wanted to see out the window, to be reminded of what happened. She wanted this penance, this torture, to gnaw at her until it destroyed her. To her, the stretch of burnt-out buildings, the damaged streets, was a symbol of her failure. She was a failed commander. At times, in her vulnerable state, she even thought of visiting the necessary retribution upon herself for her failure.

It was a frightful idea, and even more frightful how hollow she felt.

Parinita had perhaps noticed, as she had “misplaced” Madiha’s service revolver and always had something better to do than to replace it. It was just as well, since Madiha was not fighting. She was stuck behind the 3rd Defensive Line corps, an impromptu formation that, alongside the 1st, 2nd and 4th Defensive Line Corps, represented the men and women struggling to hold Bada Aso for as long as possible. These defensive lines differed in depth and combat ability. Half the Corps had simple instructions, and the other half had a more complex purpose. They were corps in name only, as none of them had headquarters.

They could not spare the staff for it.

They could not spare a lot of things.

Madiha could only sit and wait for the grim news as Parinita answered the phone.

“We’ve got trouble along the first defensive lines.” Parinita said, pulling the handset slightly off her head and covering the receiver with her hand. She was still on speaker.

“I expected that. Phone call first, and then relay the information.” Madiha replied.

Parinita shrugged comically and pressed the handset against her head again.

When she was done she put it down.

“We’ve got trouble along the first defensive lines.” She said again in a mock sing-song.

Madiha sighed and rubbed her eyes down. “This is not a reasonable time for that.”

“I’m just dealing with things in a healthy way. I find it is better to laugh than to cry.”

“I will do neither.” Madiha said tersely. “So, without charm, what is the situation?”

Parinita shrugged comically again, but sorted herself out fast enough to preempt another complaint. “At around nine the first Nochtish forces breached the city limits. We had nothing out there to intercept them but observers, who called it in and then hauled away as you ordered. Shortly thereafter we received the first reports of fire being exchanged in the Southern district. The enemy forces appear to be approaching along Matumaini in the center, Penance road in the southwest, and the old bridge road in the Umaiha riverside in the southeast. In each place the first defensive line held out as much as it could then folded. The 2nd Defensive Line Corps are in place on Upper Matumaini, Nile Street, and at the old Cathedral of Penance along Penance road. They’re not engaged with the enemy yet.”

“Any estimates of our losses in battle thus far?”

“Not a clue. The 1st Defensive Line Corps was deliberately undermanned so it’s not like we had a lot to lose. None of the other Line Corps are engaged yet.”

“Yes.” Madiha felt another terrible stab of guilt.

It was all going according to her bloody plans so far.

“Nocht appears to have committed three divisions, each with a regiment forward.”

“No matter. We will soon spring the trap. Everyone is aware of this?”

Parinita nodded, but she had a bleaker expression on her face than before. “I reiterated the plan from yesterday’s briefing to them as best as I could. But you know our officer quality is not what it should be; and the quantity is even less so. We are largely depending on a big game of telephone here to relay the plan to common troops. There were already a few episodes of panic along the front from troops who didn’t get the memo straight.”

Madiha knew too well.

She was staring down the elite of Nocht’s troops, and her own army was crippled.

Demilitarization was at first lauded by the Civil Council as a way of empowering the public and pushing socialism to its next stages. Taking power away from traditional military structures. But the ‘arming of the citizenry’ was limited to the keeping of ammunition and weapon dumps and stocks in cities that were carefully guarded, to be distributed “during emergencies.” This was not happening now, largely because Madiha could not find the Spirits-damned depots and she was becoming sure they did not exist.

What Demilitarization entailed in practice was the curtailing of the size and efficacy of the army, due to fear of the old revolutionaries once in charge of it. Many Generals in the Ayvartan army were dismissed; while most deserved a retirement due to their age and inability to adapt to rapid changes in technologies, very few were promoted to take their place. Those that remained were kept away from the troops, as advisers to the bureaucracy.

Ranks above Captain thinned out, and so lower officers were thrust with greater responsibilities, limited contact with superiors, and few opportunities for promotion. Standards were relaxed or in many cases forcibly lowered; organization was up to each individual Battlegroup. Formation sizes were wildly variable as long as the end result was an army with 100,000 soldiers in each territory. Hundreds of thousands of reserve troops were dismissed and hundreds of thousands of capable troops were added to reserve. Overnight, the fabled “Ten Million Men” of the Ayvartan Empire had evaporated.

To speak against Demilitarization was an awkward place, and few did it. Judging the role of a traditional military in a communist nation was a strange exercise. After all, was not the Imperial army largely reactionary and cruel? Madiha herself did not know, at the time, how to feel about it. Her superiors cooperated with the new rules of the law.

Now she felt anger and helplessness, at the result of these laws.

Demilitarization had accomplished its goal: both the vestiges of the imperial army and the ghost of the revolutionary army ceased to exist. In its place, was an unthreatening force that the Civil Council ignored. They created a new responsibility for themselves, and just as quickly relieved themselves of that burden and several others. The Armies could now never threaten the Civil Council, never bargain with them, and never beg of them.

Nobody seemed to care about the Battlegroups. While the KVW raised their own standards, and the Revolutionary Guards in Solstice were untouched, it mattered little.

It came from a time and place where they could not see an enemy attacking them; or perhaps, from a time when they did not want to see it. Madiha was staring down an organized, professional army with a disastrous organization of her own.

Many of her Captains were unaccounted for, heaping even more responsibilities on her Lieutenants. Parinita had told her that most of the Captains had sour relationships with Gowon and carried themselves fairly independently, conducting training on their own and traveling with their personal cadres where they pleased.

Madiha figured the chaos of the invasion, their disdain for the territorial authority, combined with their lingering fear of the KVW’s inspections, must have caused them to lose their nerve and finally vanish from the ranks. Some had probably even defected.

She had over ten divisions, and not a single Colonel or General among them.

She was the highest rank.

In the room with her yesterday there had been two Captains and a gaggle of Lieutenants. She gave the briefing to them as best as she could. She conveyed the plan for the Bada Aso Strategic Defensive Operation, “Hellfire.” From there, those few officers she briefed had the task of effectively controlling the entire army to carry out this plan.

Though Parinita and her staff had done their best to return order to the organization, there was only so much that could be done at this point to combat the idiosyncrasies of Battlegroup Ox’s deployment. This was year’s worth of damage to fix.

Now strategy was done; real-time tactics would have to carry the day from here on.

Madiha stood from her desk, took up the phone and dialed a number.

She waited through the tones and relayed the necessary orders.

“Once the 1st Defensive Line fully dissolves, and the 2nd Defensive Line comes under threat, you are to wait until the enemy is fully committed against the line before launching the flanking counterattack. Ogre heavy tanks are authorized to join the attack then.”

Madiha put down the phone, and sat behind her desk again.

She felt helpless. Everything felt out of her hands now. Whether the counterattack on Matumaini succeeded or failed; whether the city survived; whether her own life proved to be of any worth. None of it was within her power to affect.

“Spirits guide us all.” Parinita said, looking out the window of the office.

They could see none of the fighting. Only ruins.


NEXT CHAPTER in Generalplan Suden — The Battle of Matumaini, Part 1

The Birth of the Solstice War

Welcome to the first “The Solstice War” supplemental post. I’ve been meaning to start doing these for a while now since they’re something I promised on the Patreon. However I couldn’t figure out exactly what to write about. I figure then that it’s best to start from the beginning.

Of course, every story starts with its author in one way or another, so let us start with me.

I have been wanting to write The Solstice War in some form or another for years. My childhood was very difficult in a lot of ways, I lived in a rough area, money was not always on hand, and I had nascent ideas about queerness that I could not admit to for fear of retribution. One shining light in my childhood, oddly enough, was video games and militaria of various sorts. I loved watching documentaries about wars, reading articles about wars; especially World War 2. My favorite games were strategy games: I loved Starcraft, Command & Conquer, and so on. Later I found far more difficult war games about World War 2, such as Panzer General, Operation Europe and Combat Mission. When playing any of these games, I’d often imagine myself as the voiceless commander that is often the player character in them. It made me feel less powerless about things. Later I discovered shooting games where you could be a soldier IN World War 2, like Call of Duty, and that was almost as good as being the commander.

I especially liked when I could play as the Soviets in video games, at first because they were different than the others. Though all the Western media I consumed was quick to vilify communism, I found it fascinating. As I learned more and became an adult and found sources that weren’t fed through a western lens (Marx; Lenin; a wee bit of Mao) it became my political ideology, despite the hatred I knew I would face for it. I figured I was already a queer hispanic person in the US; I was already hated. I might as well be true to myself and be a dirty commie.

Ultimately, of course, I grew up, and I knew that war wasn’t just my fun, it was not simply something I did on the computer to feel like I was strong. In fact, it became disgusting to me that I found it a source of strength. All those chits on the board, back in 1941, were people, and they died, and they did not die simply because I fumbled with the UI or didn’t know the game’s rules properly. So for a while I tried to swear off all that stuff. But I kept getting back in. My life was not getting better and I needed distractions. So I could never quite let go of war entertainment.

Eventually, I came to the conclusion that it was generally more harmful to me to hate myself for liking these games, than it was to attempt to construct some kind of principled abstinence from them. I know intellectually that war is bad. I know intellectually the history of World War 2 from all sides of the conflict (though my particular focus has always been the Soviets). I understand it, I respect it (what deserves respect). I have different ideas about war now, which have come from shedding noxious notions of strength that I held as a put-upon and hurt little boy.

When I’m feeling down though, I’ll still boot up Company of Heroes or Unity of Command.

This became more problematic when it came to my other hobby, and my biggest passion: writing stories. Ever since I was 12 I loved writing stories. I wrote little stories on notebooks and tried to get my friends to read them. When I found out that the internet, and especially forums, fanfiction.net and fictionpress.com would allow me to reach tons of people with my scribblings, I was the most elated kid in Puerto Rico. I wrote a lot of stuff during my childhood and teenage years. My writing matured, but I eventually came to a point where I was very self-conscious of what I was writing, and convinced myself it wasn’t good enough to do it. That lasted about 2 or 3 years in college, as I was finishing my English degree and received a lot of encouragement from my department not to write fiction, and especially not to write the dreaded “genre” fiction.

So instead I tried to write stuff for tabletop RPG games. I regret wasting time on that.

 

In late 2011 I decided to get back in, with stuff like Ladybird that was quirky, and dumb, and that I didn’t have to take seriously. It built up my confidence, but I knew I was avoiding writing dramatic fiction, and I knew that I wanted to write it. (Though I also want to write Ladybird, but I am one person who is occupied enough with a single story as it is!) I rewrote Ladybird a bunch of times, and constantly found myself writing “first chapters” of Ladybird that redefined her origin, because I wasn’t satisfied. Even now I have another origin in mind!

That’s kind of when I realized writing origins was pretty destructive sometimes and it is better to start ahead and assume the origin has happened already. But that is beside the point right now.

For a long time I wanted to write a war story, mostly just to do it. I know a lot of stuff about war and about the time period of World War 2 and I felt like I could write a very interesting story with this knowledge. I didn’t have any particular political aims for the war part of the story: my writing has in general always been fairly political, but not really about war itself. Ladybird is a story that is leery toward capitalism and moneyed democracy, open to queerness and coloredness; that is my writing in general, and that would also be any war story I wrote. Of course, it would also force me to deal with those apprehensions I have toward war as a piece of entertainment. I don’t want to write a story stereotypically “critical” of war because I do not believe the pacifist message helps empower oppressed people such as queer folks and colored folks. But I also did not want to write a celebration of war, because celebrating war attracts the kind of people I am heartily disgusted by, like nationalists and racists of all sorts. Military fandom is highly, rigidly conservative and reactionary. I wanted an ambivalence of war; and a focus instead on the people and the ideologies behind it.

That is when I got the core idea for the Solstice War: a look at a World War 2-styled conflict from the perspective of a communist nation toward which other, capitalist nations are committing violence driven primarily by economy and ideology.

Over time this core would expand in different ways, which I hope to talk about more in the future once I have collected all of my thoughts on the subject. I find writing about writing to be difficult to do objectively or scientifically, because to me a greater part of writing is sort of instinctual. When I was seven years old I taught myself English by watching English television and picking up thesauri and dictionaries. It has always been an obstacle to my thinking of English (and writing) as a specifically contrived practice that constructs objects. In a way, I “just do it.”

So, here’s hoping that subsequent entries in this series grow more coherent and not less.

The Library And The Ladybird (VII)

President Ableman fished Ladybird out from a ditch created by the earthquake, pulling her by the neck and shouting directly into her ear. “This is all your fault, you worthless bug!” She slapped a pair of handcuffs on her, and dragged the dazed woman by the stumps of her broken antennae. Ladybird’s vision was unfocused, her ears were ringing, and her head was cloudy. She could not immediately identify what was meant by this.

It could have been the utter destruction of the Presidential Plaza. All around her the earth was splintered, fractures of varying sizes stretching across the surface of the park as though it were a cracked glass panel. A long trail of fire and upturned dirt cut across the plaza, from the edge of the park all the way to the Library of Congress, where a massive, burning steel hulk, vaguely in the shape of a saucer, had come to rest after its terrifying crash. Rock and cobblestone and glass littered the walkways and road where street lamps had shattered, paths had broken, and statues had been pulverized. But had any of it really been her fault? Ladybird pondered this momentarily.

She came to a conclusion she found fairly acceptable.

“It’s not my fault!” She shouted.

“I’m blaming this all on you! You thought you could escape retribution by saving my life? You’ve got another thing coming!” President Ableman shouted, ruthlessly pulling on Ladybird’s antennae stumps as she dragged her across the plaza. Her secret service detail watched in bewilderment, while the army forces stood in fearful salute. Cassandra dragged Ladybird across the procession of federal forces both assessing the damage to the park and to their own careers, past the Library of Congress, and to a broken trail leading to the bizarre monument that had risen from the ground during the earthquake. Ladybird merely flopped like a fish behind her.

“Examine your handiwork you vile traitor!” Cassandra shouted. She hefted Ladybird up by the remains of her antennae and climbed the steps to show her the aftermath of her seemingly dreadful crimes.

Earlier in the day when Ladybird had examined the monument she had found it sealed off with massive stone doors that would not budge. Now those doors had been thrown open by the force of the C.S. Hydra crashing into the side of the building. Cassandra entered the room and lifted Ladybird accusingly toward the contents of the building, thrusting her face close every offensive little item that there was to be seen.

There were shelves, roughly hewn from what appeared to be freshly felled trees, moss still growing on the bark unshaven from the wood’s surface. Several lines of shelves occupied the building’s single story, and each of these were crammed with old books, seemingly bound in gold, with shining gold spines and clean white pages. Glass-shielded torches on the walls illuminated the room, and the floor tiles had not even a fleck of dust on them. There must have been hundreds of books on those shelves. The space inside the monument seemed unreal, as though it held its own world regardless of how small it looked from the outside. Those doors were like a wormhole to a strange place.

Ameran and occult symbology dominated the space. There were eagles and wreaths of acacia and world globes across the shelves and shining on the book covers. There were star and banner flags that strangely had only 13 stars. Pentagrams and algebraic symbols entwined across the floor tiles, etched like ritual markings, glowing with a misty light that gave the place a feel of magic. Ladybird felt the strange power and ominous atmosphere of the monument, even in her stupor. She could see it all.

Still held up like a dead fish by Cassandra, Ladybird felt something electric, biological, something inside her that triggered a sudden and inexplicable need. The sensation was similar to when she molted.  She shut her eyes and her limbs went rigid. She began to concentrate on her forehead and antennae, holding her breath and putting active pressure, furrowing her brow and trying to control the muscles of her upper head. Cassandra stared at her, clearly perturbed; she then gasped and let go when new antennae sprouted within her grip with a spurt of yellow hemolymph. Ladybird hit the ground, but now she could see and hear quite clearly, and her vertigo was clearing up.

“You monster!” Cassandra whined. “Now my hand is covered in your filth!”

“That’s your fault for not leaving me in that ditch.” Ladybird said.

“I was trying to help you!” Cassandra shouted.

Ladybird put her hands on her hips, staring pointedly at Cassandra.

“Really?” She said.

Cassandra fidgeted. “Help you – take responsibility for your actions!

“Great. Wonderful.” Ladybird sighed. Cassandra seemed categorically incapable of kindness.

“It doesn’t matter what I did, what matters is what you did, which is horribly endangering me– I mean, Amera. You are putting this country at risk, and I demand, as the President, that you make amends!”

Ladybird glared at her from the floor. “I’m not sure I fully appreciate what’s happening here.”

“What is happening is – I will destroy you if you don’t do something about this, right now.”

“About what?”

Cassandra grit her teeth. She pointed at the shelves. “All of this is classified information, and the purpose of this place is protected as a matter of national security. It is your fault that it is exposed, and you will take it into your hands right now to suppress all of this information. Smash it, burn it, do whatever, but get rid of it!”

“And what if I don’t want to?” Ladybird said, sitting up and crossing her arms.

The President paused and stared at her. Cassandra crossed her own arms, tapped her feet, and fidgeted with her hair, seeming deep in thought for a moment. Her feet tapped faster and faster, while she grew more visibly aggravated, her eyes turning deeper red, and her face with it. She began holding her hands out in front of her as though she wanted to wring Ladybird’s neck, but kept finding herself incapable of it. Ladybird did not want to hurt her, it likely would have been a lopsided match, but if the President punched down, she’d punch up. Cassandra seemed to realize this, because she moved no closer to wringing Ladybird’s neck, and kept wringing the air.

Momentarily she turned to look outside, where the army was.

She shook her head, covering her face with her hands in embarrassment.

“I think she realized that she could sic the army on you, but that it’d be a complete sideshow.” Dragonfly said, again calling Ladybird from their base of operations. She appeared in a corner of Ladybird’s goggle display, blowing on herself with a paper fan, sweaty, her red ponytail looking frizzy – due to the earthquake damage to their apartment, there was no air conditioning to keep her cool. “I guess she really can’t make you do anything.”

Ladybird smiled smugly, emboldened by this realization. Cassandra turned back to her, gritting her teeth and noticing her change of character. Apparently frustrated by her inability to simply will mug and mime at Ladybird to destroy her, she threw a tantrum, pounding on the floor with her feet and fists while making child-like, aggressive noises, growing higher pitched the more her temper degraded. Cracks formed on the pristine tiles whenever she struck, but they quickly repaired themselves whenever her fist rose back up from another strike, so that no permanent damage could be dealt to the structure even by Cassandra’s unrestrained violence.

“Well, she just lost one potential voter with that one.” Ladybird replied, brushing off the paper-like threads of shed skin and the dry flakes of hemolymph from her body as she stood up, her wounds closing. She had fully regenerated her antennae and filled most of the wounds with collagen. It would do for now until she could molt again. Losing her antennae was terribly annoying – it would grievously impair all of her other insect abilities.

Unamused, the President wiped the sweat and tears from her face and stood up to Ladybird once again. “You don’t even vote! You’re here illegally!” Cassandra sniveled. “So shut up!”

“Ladybird, did you see that?” Dragonfly said over Ladybird’s earpiece. Her goggles replayed the moment in a small video window, slowing down the appearance and disappearance of the cracks. “The floor fixed itself. I’m willing to guess the rest of this structure could be fairly hard to be rid of if it can all do that.”

“I guess that’s why it was buried underground, since it couldn’t be smashed.” Ladybird said. “From the looks of things, it’s bad news for the Amerans when this place rises from its hole.”

Absentmindedly, Ladybird snapped the handcuffs, with the same ease as breaking a twig. It appeared that Cassandra was in no condition to answer questions. Her meltdown continued unabated.  Half laughing and half crying, staring at her own hands in front of her face, she would hover about the room, and at random times kicking or otherwise striking one of the shelves and knocking down a book – which would then instantly right itself again. Then, suddenly, she stopped, and slowly turned her head over her shoulder to stare at Ladybird, her eyes glowing red and puffy. Slowly the color of her eyes changed to gold, and the distraught expression on her face vanished, and her drooping wings and limp tail rose up again. She directed herself toward Ladybird, crossing her arms, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose, leaning back and cocking a little grin toward her. She looked like the picture of cool collectedness.

Ladybird rubbed her arm and smiled. “Uh– Hi, President?”

“You’re an idiot and I hate you.” Cassandra said, smiling. “In fact you might be the most disgusting and vile creature I have had the displeasure of being forced into contact with. You’re so gross and despicable that it is actually intriguing.”

“Ok.” Ladybird said simply. She blinked with confusion.

“So, how do you feel about that? Does your feeble mind feel attracted by my powerful insults? Well, you might be able to have this,” She gestured across herself, still grinning smugly, “If your stupid self follows my detailed instructions. What do you say to that? Interested? Obsessed, perhaps? Finding me irresistible now?”

“Umm. No. No, not really.” Ladybird said.

Cassandra paused for a moment, rubbing her chin, looking distraught once again. As soon as her self-doubt was again made visible, it also again disappeared. Ladybird caught her mouthing a word to herself: Kino.  She took on a different tack entirely afterwards, standing straight, her expression softening from its previous cool apathy. She approached Ladybird with a gentle demeanor, swinging her hips and slightly puckering her glossy lips.

Ladybird blinked with confusion. What the heck was Kino?

“I think I have treated you all wrong, Ladybird.” Cassandra said, her voice taking on a sudden sultry depth. “Ladybird, such a name. I feel as though I’ve discovered a new dimension of you. Such a strong depth. I feel as though all this time I overlooked something between us.” She took Ladybird’s hand, and pressed it against her own cheek. She teasingly pulled Ladybird’s fingers across her neck, slipping the hand under her suit coat and dress shirt and over the gentle curve of her shoulder. She drew closer, inch by sweltering inch, until Ladybird was overwhelmed with rosy perfume (had she worn it all along?) and the warmth of Cassandra’s breaths, felt almost right over her lips.

Ladybird tried to turn her cheek a little to keep away from a full kiss, but she felt a growing warmth all over, causing her face to flush, fiercely, the reddening visible even across the mid-brown tone of her skin. Her wings vibrated inside her back. Her antennae curled until they made the shape of a heart, matching the shape at the end of Cassandra’s pink tail (had it always been pink?). Cassandra was so soft to touch, and her skin almost shone. Her eyes and lips looked so inviting. Ladybird grew dizzy, and felt her own body swaying closer. Soon she could keep away no longer, and instead locked unblinking eyes with the President. She felt strangely pleasant, face to face with Ableman.

“Ladybird, I feel like we could forge a partnership with great benefits,” Cassandra drawled the pronunciation, and bit her own lip a little after benefits had rolled over her tongue, sending Ladybird shivering with strange delight. She wrapped her free arm around Ladybird’s waist, traveling down her thigh. “Why don’t you smash up this ugly place for me? The sooner we leave here, the sooner I can take you to the Opal Office with me. I can mount you on the Resolute Desk and walk you through a night with the most powerful woman in the world. What do you say?”

“That’s the name of the desk?” Ladybird said, laughing aloud. “It’s called The Resolute Desk? That’s such a stupid name. I thought the iconic presidential desk would have a cool name!”

Suddenly the fantasy collapsed. All the warm feelings and corporeal longings evaporated. Cassandra’s eyes turned red again, and her wings and tail turned black. She grit her sharp fangs together.

“You complete facile oaf!” She shouted, shoving Ladybird away.

Ladybird pointed at her and laughed. “Who even named the desk? Was it you?”

“Shut up! Ugh!” Cassandra shook her fists. “I can’t believe I tried that, and on you of all people! This is all your fault, you grotesque cockroach! You should have just fallen for my negging!”

Dragonfly appeared again on Ladybird’s goggle camera, pulling on the collar of her shirt and fanning herself. “Well, that was, uh, something. Something I hope never to see again. So could you please ask her what’s going on? In a productive way? Clearly she is really distraught by whatever this is, around you.”

Ladybird nodded. She cupped her hands around her mouth.

“Hey, you, you creepy pick-up artist demon–”

“–I said ask her productively!” Dragonfly groaned.

“–What’s the deal with this monument anyway?”

Cassandra grunted. “I can’t tell you, it’s national security! Just smash it already!”

“What makes you so sure I can do that?” Ladybird said, looking skeptical.

“Because you’re an illegal immigrant! There’s no Ladybird in my citizenship rolls, and I’m a legal Ameran so I can’t destroy it, and neither can my forces. Just make with the destroying already!”

“She’s not gonna budge.” Dragonfly sighed.

Seeing Cassandra’s reluctance to cede any sort of information, Ladybird considered simply doing what the President asked. There were several perils involved. Firstly she would be helping Cassandra Ableman. In fact this was really the major peril – Ladybird thought Cassandra arrogant, fickle and opportunistic and a general bad person. However, she was the President of Amera. After all was said and done she might owe her a favor. And what was the use of this monument anyway? Nobody would miss a few old books, especially if they hadn’t even seen them for hundreds of years. Curious about her ability to carry out this plan, Ladybird turned to face one of the shelves, and delivered a kick to its side. She made a deep dent in the wood. It would prove permanent. She pulled a book from the shelf, its cover reading, in etched gold, Compendio Daemonis LIV. Without reading a word, she ripped several of the pages out and threw them about her like confetti. Confetti they remained – unlike when Cassandra struck them, the books did not repair themselves.

The President’s face lit up and she began to clap at the destruction unfolding.

“Yes! Yes! Break more! Finally I can be rid of this damned thing!”

Ladybird threw the desecrated tome over her shoulder and grinned.

“So,” she began, crossing her arms and eyeing Cassandra, “if I destroy your little library here, what will you do for me? I’m going to need an incentive here, since I’m doing you a big favor.”

“I’ll write you a tax break!” Cassandra said.

“You said yourself that I’m illegal, so why do I need a tax break?”

“True. Sorry.” Cassandra stroked her own hair quizzically. “Tax breaks are my bread and butter solution to most problems. Instead, let me offer you something unique. I think I have a proposition you will like.” She raised her hand to swear: “I will veto all Anti-Ladybird laws and give you partial immunity for a year.”

“What about any years after that?” Ladybird asked.

“You’re on your own.” Cassandra said, frowning. “Final offer!”

Ladybird stretched out her hand. “Deal!”

They shook hands, and Ladybird walked between a row of shelves, so that she could see the walls of the monument on both sides and go about the bloody business ahead of her. She set her shoulder, closed her fists, and spread her wings. Holding her breath and closing her eyes, she burst forward on the strength of her green jets, rocketing toward the wall and delivering a brutal punch. The entire monument shook, books began to fall from the shelves, the candles went out. Ladybird’s punch took a 5mm thick sliver of rock from the wall – a small cut, barely a nick.

“This could take a while.” Ladybird said, smiling nervously at Cassandra.

“Better idea!” Cassandra replied. “Just rip all the pages out of the books, rip them into tiny little pieces, and spray them about. It doesn’t matter if the rock stands around if nobody can read the books!”

Ladybird looked out over the book-laden landscape of the library. There were probably hundreds of books, thousands of books– hundreds of thousands of books. She flew up to a high shelf, examining several specimens. All of them had similar titles – Compendio Daemonis, Volvere Ab Luciferum, all with volume numbers stretching into infinity. The more she looked around the shelves, the more books seemed to occupy the place, as though more were spawning from thin air whenever she contemplated destroying them. The higher she flew, the higher the ceiling seemed.

From above, she shouted down, “I demand wages for this!”

From below, Cassandra shouted up, “Minimum wage!”

Ladybird grumbled, both because it was a very bad wage for this work, but also because she was all too ready to accept it over essentially nothing.

Let’s Not Forget Senator Gainesley

Senator Gainesley played Russian Roulette every morning and always lost.

Losing was expected, and it was okay. It was ritual. Ritual was necessary.

He’d fix breakfast first; cracking eggs, buttering a pan, picking through the bread box for good slices to toast. Everything should end how it started, he felt. Everything should end with his famous El Dorado Scrambles. He’d eaten them when he thought of running for Senate and by gun he’d eat them before a .357 round scattered all his ideas for bills across the kitchen walls. The solitary round in the cylinder had lain, awaiting its chance, for one year now, though not to the day.

Paul Gainesley spun the cylinder and in a swift, practiced action he closed it and raised the gun. He pulled the trigger, without thinking, and there was an audible click. In seconds the action was resolved, and Gainesley returned the revolver to its prominent place on his wall, below a small plaque reading “The Power of Positive Thinking.” He nodded sagely at the plaque, picked up his blazer and headed out to work. Outside his house, two Secret Service agents, faces frozen in a disciplined military rictus, smiled at him in spirit, though not physically, and ushered him into his armored car.

Life was a long series of rituals. On his drive to Capital Newfork, Senator Gainesley pulled curtains over the tinted, armored windows of the car and shut himself from the world, gathering up his binder full of plans for future legislation. He would raise his left leg over his right and hold his phone with his left hand, resting on a cushion, unnecessarily so as he listened and spoke through a headset. He would order his driver with his right hand, conducting him through the winding streets and demanding he yield to every large crossing crowd and civilian vehicle. The driver hardly required such instruction but Senator Gainesley was used to giving it. His was an ordered world, a world bettered under his command.

The more pathologically-minded would call it “coping,” for control he otherwise lacked.

At the Capital Mound, Senator Gainesley exited his armored car through the right side, unto the road. He avoided incoming cars screaming obscenities at him and circled around his own, the secret service agents doing the hardened military rictus equivalent of expressing dismay. Soon he was climbing the steps, skipping every 13th step, to the high capitol building where every day, the fates of millions of Amerans were blocked by filibusters. He would enter between the 7th and 8th pillars, and make his way to his office on the third elevator from the left. Finally, at his office, he would smile to his aides, sit down behind his desk, and smash his face an erratic number of times against the wooden desk. Sometimes he would smash it once for each letter at his desk. Other times he would smash it 13 times to get to work quickly. Most of the times, he smashed without thought.

“Sir, you are bleeding.” He’d be told. Things were still under control. He heard that every day without fail.

“I know.” He’d reply, commandingly. Reality was still his to manipulate. “I know.”

“You have a meeting in an hour with Senator Frumious.”

Senator Gainesley attempted to flip over his desk, but the allure of its fine Zamanon pulp-fiber body and smoothed edges, along with its 700 lb weight, prevented him from doing so. Instead he half-stood, holding unto the desk by its sides, legs bent, shoulders hunched, breathing irregular, his aide staring at him from over a clipboard. He sat again. Things were spiraling out of control. Seizing a small paperweight statue of legendary sports star Bryan Bryan from his desk, he contemplated it, and he threw that instead. It struck the copy machine on the far side of the room, who silently disapproved.

His face sank into his hands.

“Ok.” He mumbled. “Tell him I will be glad to meet him to discuss things in a bipartisan way.”

A semblance of control returned – he said that every day. And he never meant it.

The aide nodded and retreated carefully out the door.

“I’m sorry, Bryan Bryan.” Senator Gainesley muttered. Sensing a need to weep, he had his 2 P.M. cry early that day, along with an exquisite glass of Black Bourbon. While he wept and sobbed the hour away, he realized it was all okay. He had decided to do it! Rescheduling was still control. Bryan Bryan’s pitching record deserved it. And Black Bourbon took on an unearthly, decadent character when accentuated by his tears. Everything about his 11 A.M. cry was okay.

Five minutes before the meeting he cleaned himself up and entered the bargaining hall. The subject of discussion would be his first personally authored bill to ever make it to the bargaining hall without being struck down in some other way, and he had a good feeling about it. Good feelings elicited control, and exuded confidence. He took his seat in the long hall, put down his binder, stared down his opponent, and then looked away, mildly intimidated.

The conservative party had swept the congressional elections, leaving Senator Gainesley as a freshman minority liberal senator from New Coatl – the least listened-to person in the higher chamber. Across from him on that long, black table in that long, dark room, was Senator Frumious of Theftha. He had a head like a brick and a torso like a barrel, and his hardened military rictus of a face betrayed his past of elite training and successful classified missions. The most listened-to Senator in the higher chamber, whose state controlled the textbook industry, drilled all the oil, fundamentalized all of the religion, and sold all the cowboy hats. There was nothing more Ameran than Theftha, and nothing less Ameran than New Coatl.

“Gainesley.” Frumious said simply.

“Frumious.” Gainesley replied. Was mimicry control? He was feeling an acute loss of control.

“Let’s not mince words,” Frumious said, “This bill you wrote is the most vile sociocommunist bulgarofascist bumloving thing I have ever seen since the Bum Lover’s Act of 2002 by Senator Bumlover. It’s a disgrace to Amera and a clear redistribution of wealth in the Aminostalonist fashion, and I will not stand for it as written, Gainesley!”

Gainesley shuddered, unable to tell if it was bigotry against homosexuals or the homeless at play. It could be both, judging by the conservative agenda and looking at the amendments proposed on Gainesley’s bill.

“With all due respect Frumious, it’s just a minimum wage increase of 50 micro-ameros.” Gainesley retorted. “Increasing the minimum wage by 50 micro-amero will make an incredible difference for millions of families and little difference for the margins of the most fortunate Amerans.” He said the last phrase smoothly, having practiced it very often. It’d be a mistake to call them anything explicit, like the Corporations or the Bourgeoise. That’d be ad hominem.

“It’ll also bankrupt all our jerb creatums!” Frumious said, his speech becoming garbled with rage. He pounded his fist on the table. “All of the Fortunate 500 will see this bill and flee to the SENTINEL countries or Chung Kuoh!”

“SENTINEL and Chung Kuoh have an even higher minimum wage now than we would with this bill!” Gainesley said. “It’s only 50 micro-amero more, we’ve done extensive testing on this, it won’t hurt anyone.”

“Right, testing! Using all your leftist feminomarxist think thanks, running them round-the-clock to look for ways to dismantle capitalism. The market cries out in agony, and you just want the JACKDAT to sink further! We closed down 5 points yesterday Gainesley, five whole points! Do you even know that you’re destroying Amera?”

Gainesley sighed and gripped his binder like an eagle crushing a mouse’s neck.

“Frumious that’s disingenuous, most of those companies are not only showing record profits, and many don’t even play host to any minimum wage Ameran jobs that would be affected by this legislation.”

Frumious stood up and pointed his finger right between Gainesley’s eyes.

“You’re delusional! What you’re proposing here is that we pay every desk warmer and paper pusher in the world 8.50 Amero for the privilege? Bah! You’re gonna bankrupt every industry in the world! Soon you’ll be asking for them to earn the same wages as esteemed bankers and CEOs! Soon you’ll be asking for everyone to earn the same!”

“None of those are minimum wage jobs!” Gainesley shouted back. “They already get paid more than 8.50!”

“Every lemonade stand and shoe-shining boy gets to own a limo now, is that your big dream Gainesley?” Frumious ranted, slobbering over the table, “Redistributing our limos by bankrupting high industry?”

Gainesley stood bolt upright and slammed the table himself.

“This is for service work and janitors, it’s not going to bankrupt anybody you fucking idiot!”

There was silence in the room suddenly. Gainesley covered his mouth.

“OH.” Frumious said. “He called me a– OH.”

His jaw dropped and his hands shook.

“OH. OH. He called me– he called me a fucking idiot! Did you get that?” He stared up at the camera in the ceiling and the camera nodded. “You got that? Good. Good. Then I win Gainesley. Ad hominem. I win.”

Senator Gainesley’s face sank into his hand.

“God damn it I’ll add your stupid oil company tax loophole in it! Okay! I relent!”

Frumious smiled. “I’m glad you see sense now Gainesley. Glad my talk got through to you. You’re a good man at heart. A sensible politician. Never made a bill I didn’t agree with on some level.” He extended his hand.

Senator Gainesley tried to flip the table, but the strength to do so again eluded him.

After the hand shake, and applying copious amounts of molecularly-corrosive medical acid cream to cleanse his hand afterward, Senator Gainesley returned to his office, sat on his desk, and banged his head on it. But only once. This part was controlled and properly planned. He was easing back into life now, and life was rituals and control.

“How did the meeting go?” The aide asked, seeming ready to avoid an incoming throw.

“Bill’s gonna pass.” Gainesley replied. “Frumious likes it now.”

“How did that happen?”

“I let him have his oil loophole.”

“The one that’ll quadruple Oil profits while reducing accountability?”

Senator Gainesley stood quietly, picked up his statue of Bryan Bryan, and threw it past his aide such that it struck his desk, broke in half and landed gracefully in a garbage can. He nodded with satisfaction at the result.

“Yes, that one.”

“Oh. Congratulations.” The aide said, clapping joyfully.

Severla hours later, his work accomplished, Senator Gainesley returned home. He entered his armored car through the right side, ignoring the rushing traffic. He closed all his curtains, straightened out his lefts and rights and conducted his driver through the night traffic. His agents stood before his house like dutiful gargoyles. He had an unscheduled cry and stared upon his Power of Positive Thinking plaque. Beneath it was the revolver, with its one bullet, all ritual and superstition.

It had been almost a year, but not to the day, since he’d begun playing Russian Roulette every morning. He played it over his famous El Dorado scrambled eggs and not once had he won. He had never played it at night though – it did not seem as appropriate before, as it did right then. Perhaps this night would be a mix of ritual and innovation, he thought happily. Drinking a cup of black extra caffeinated coffee made all the more decadent with the addition of tears, as he usually did most nights, Senator Gainesley picked up the revolver, opened the cylinder to see that one bullet as old as his young political career. He’d not introduced many bills, and most of them had not made it far. He’d got one though. He’d got one today.

Senator Gainesley spun the cylinder and with incredible control he let fate sort everything out.