Brigands [3.1]

“Ferris, the iron wall of the Union. Oh how you sacrifice for us, to this very day.”

Looking out of a false window in her shuttle, an LCD with a feed of their surroundings, Premier Bhavani Jayasankar mused on the region farthest from her direct influence. A rocky, mountainous, grey place, hundreds of meters beneath the Ocean and any sign of surface light. While the political center of the Union lay in Solstice, its military heart was the border of Ferris.

This austere place was where their truest warriors were born and lived.

Soldiers from all around the Union mustered at Ferris to defend the border.

Amid this mobilization, the Premier herself was also summoned.

Beyond just speeches and reassurances, she wanted to see Ferris for herself. She would give nobody the excuse of saying she hid in Solstice while the border turned hot. Three days had passed since the battle, and she had made the journey as soon as she could. Her trip was public knowledge and there were a lot of appearances she planned to make with military and civilians.

There were also a few private matters she needed to take care of.

“Nagavanshi always gets out ahead of me somehow.” She said to herself.

Her reflection in the glass began to wane.

In the distance, the center of human life in Ferris took her place in the murky picture.

Thassal Station stood like a deformed pillar rising high above rolling hills of pockmarked stone and stripped out ore quarries. Reinforced titanium modules and the occasional glass hexagon made up the habitats, berths and weapons stations that stuck out all around the central rock formation, at once grafted upon the surface but also upholding it. In the center of the mound, a Core Pylon served as a foundation, shouldering the lives built up over the rock, tethering everything, and hiding the Agarthicite reactors. It was their purple glow that made this life possible.

“And there’s my first destination.”

Sitting on the rock next to Thassal Station was a massive structure. Like a bubble of glass and metal, resting atop a massive base laden with berths, to which dozens of ships were docked. Premier Jayasankar recalled the glowing report she gave at the start of the year about the expansion of agriculture in Lyser, and how this structure represented it. Now it was going to be used for war.

It was in this Agri-Sphere that she would decide the Union’s next military actions.

Dragged in from Lyser, this sphere now served as “Hammer-1,” temporary base of the expanded Ferris fleet. Thousands of personnel had arrived at Hammer-1 to organize logistics and supply, to run maintenance and to build stockpiles. As it was originally intended for agriculture, both hydroponic and with treated soil mediums, Hammer-1 was divided into flat, broad stories with rows of adjustable space and a lot of lamps. All of it was now taken up by cranes, Divers, shipping containers and makeshift warehousing. People were hard at work to make it war worthy.

Amid this build-up, Premier Jayasankar’s shuttle arrived at Hammer-1.

Alone, without bodyguards or attendants, she headed into the depths of the structure.

As far as anyone knew, she was much too early for her first public appearance.

She was right on time for Nagavanshi’s secretive little meeting.

A meeting that could decide the fate of the Union, she had said.

Arriving in a dark room, she became part of a troika of powerful interests in the Union. Gathered around a large table equipped with a touchscreen surface, they were there to discuss the direction of the Union in the face of imminent war with the Empire. At Nagavanshi’s behalf, they would examine all of the intelligence they had on the Empire’s direction and formulate a plan.

Vain as it was, Bhavani believed herself foremost among the attendants. She was a vision of self-control and professionalism, casually confident in expression, her face only lightly weathered with experience despite her years. Tall and athletic, with her hair in a bun and wearing a black synthetic suit with dark tinted glasses, she resembled her own bodyguard more than she did a desk worker. She was the people’s Premier. She walked among them easily and casually.

Her reflection on the table was magnificent, and she felt in command of everything.

“Commissar-General, and Grand Admiral” Jayasankar bowed her head lightly toward her two counterparts. “We last met to discuss what a good year it had been for shipbuilding. I can’t help but wonder if we are all being punished for the barest hint of complacency at the moment. Our shipbuilding is far too slow for our predicament, and now our agricultural plans are also on hold. Nevertheless, I want it to be clear that I believe in us. Let’s not be too doom and gloom.”

Grand Admiral Sorokin Klasnikov was the only man in attendance. He was a tall, bronzed gentleman with a full beard, pristinely in uniform. His beard was quite long and flowed with a greater breadth even than the hair on his head. He kept his hands behind his back and stood firmly.

“Premier, it is good to see you in cheerful spirits, despite everything,” began the Admiral, soft spoken, “I don’t believe Eloah is so merciless as to fault us for merely being optimistic.”

Commissar-General Nagavanshi meanwhile looked the youngest in the room. She had suggested they hold this meeting but hid her feelings about it behind a careful, neutral expression.

“Well, Admiral, I don’t believe in any Gods, as this Union is beyond such mysticism.”

Nagavanshi had a talent for sounding both polite and openly contemptuous.

Her face lacked even the subtle crow’s feet evident around Jayasankar’s eyes and lips, and she was very obviously of a nearer vintage than the pockmarked old Klasnikov. Her hair flowed freely from under her peaked cap, adorned with a golden serpent, and her rich brown skin had an even sheen as if it had been laid over body uniformly, unmarred by light or touch.

Her golden eyes seemed bottomless, like they might devour what they viewed.

“Everything that is happening is a result of material forces that are well understood.”

She spoke quite casually, and Klasnikov looked ready to snap at her.

“Now, now,”

Premier Jayasankar interrupted before anyone could continue that particular topic.

“Religion is something best not discussed among friends.”

She swiped her fingers over the computer screen set into the middle of the table.

A map of the Nectaris and Imbrium Oceans appeared on the screen. The Premier touched closer to the north Imbrium sea, where the Occultis continental line separated the North Imbrium, ruled mostly by the Empire, with the northwestern end of the Cognitum Ocean: waters that the mighty Republic shared with a few other states. The Great Ayre Reach, an expanse of calm water, with simple geography at shockingly low depth, separated the Empire and the Republic.

Ayre could have been a powerful economic asset for the Republic, but instead it had been the stage of the Republic’s righteous aggression against the Empire for what seemed like hundreds of years. Every few decades there was a terrifying campaign over the Great Ayre Reach that ended in crushing Republic defeats, allowing the Empire to occupy the Reach and block the Republic’s access to the Imbrium Ocean, until the next time the mighty foes exchanged it. A communist scholar, Mordecai, once believed that the Empire and the Republic did battle over the Reach in order to destroy surplus production of goods and stymie political and social progress.

That was neither here nor there, but it was on Jayasankar’s mind as she surveyed the map.

“Anyone have the early score from the latest Empire vs. Republic game?” She asked.

Nagavanshi glanced over to Klasnikov, with a bored look on her face.

Klasnikov gave her a critical look back. He cleared his throat loudly.

“Our intelligence indicates that the Republic brought 800 ships divided into five fleets to the Ayre Reach. The Empire brought the Grand Western Fleet. The latest estimated strength for that formation was 1000 ships divided in seven fleets. It is our understanding the Empire won.”

“Of course they did.” Nagavanshi said.

“We should not act as if this was all foretold.” Klasnikov said. “It was not merely numbers that sealed the fate of the Ayre Reach. From information we gathered over the past few days, the Republic made major strategic missteps. They feared being too outnumbered, so they adopted a wide formation to try to cover Imperial flanking attacks. This allowed the Imperials to use their numbers in a different way. Instead of matching the breadth of the Republic deployment, they concentrated their attack and crushed the Republic center, isolating the wings of the formation.”

Nagavanshi scoffed. “At that point, the Republic should have swung a trap around them.”

“We can say what we want from the comfort of this chamber.” Klasnikov said. He seemed almost to pity the Republic forces. “Perhaps if they had fought on, they could have used the wings of the formation to inflict bitter damage on the Imperials. But that would have been asking troops to sacrifice their lives when they had come prepared to fight on even terms. You can’t pretend you were laying bait for the enemy just because it becomes convenient; preparing bait means that the bait was prepared for its role. For the Republic forces, they saw hundreds of their ships and thousands of their comrades killed in front of them. I can’t fault them for escaping at that point.”

“I can.” Nagavanshi said. “Because the ones picking up the pieces could soon be us. Some allies the Republic have turned out to be! Don’t give that look Klasnikov — I read the same acoustic messages you did. I don’t need explanations.” She raised an accusatory finger at the Admiral. “The Republic had a center of 200 ships and wings of 300 ships a piece. They snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by fleeing instead of pressing into Fueller’s flank and crushing him.”

“As far as the Republic’s politics are concerned, they don’t win from just killing the Prince if they have to sacrifice 800 ships to do so.” Klasnikov said. “They aren’t like you, Nagavanshi. You can isolate and kill an individual with your spies and thugs, but you can’t do it with a fleet.”

Nagavanshi narrowed her eyes at Klasnikov.

Jayasankar then raised her hand like a student in a classroom, smiling.

“Everyone is getting so spirited but let us move beyond the hypotheticals. The Republic has suffered another defeat and the Empire will again occupy the breadth of the Ayre Reach. They would still need to cross the North Occultis canal to advance, so the Republic will be fine. In fact they probably won’t even try to move farther than Ayre Reach. My concern is that if this battle did not hurt the Empire too, too much, we will be the next target. Am I correct in my assumption?”

“You very well could be.” Klasnikov said.

“No, you are absolutely wrong.”

Nagavanshi procured a series of documents and slid them across the table.

This was a symbolic gesture more than anything, because the table itself scanned the documents as they crossed and was able to project all of their data on tabbed windows close to the other meeting participants. By the time the papers’ momentum stopped just short of Jayasankar she was already reading what had been scanned. She brought her hand up to her hair to fidget.

Should the information in those papers prove correct then yes, Jayasankar’s assumption might be very wrong. It was not in her character to get giddy over every piece of idle speculation that came her way, however. So after reading the information, she turned her gaze on the head of the Ashura security and intelligence forces, Nagavanashi, who clearly knew more than she let on.

It had been her all along who suggested this meeting, after all.

Klasnikov, meanwhile, was reaching for the papers themselves as if he could not trust the scanner to have gotten the information correct. He flipped through all the papers, brow furrowing.

“Parvati, your most prominent source is this girl from the wreck of the Strasser. I assume you corroborated this news with other survivors from the Imperial fleet, and you’ve got your own tricks for finding information far afield. I want to know what other sources you have that you aren’t writing about on the record, and what information you’ve learned beyond this one event.”

Despite Jayasankar’s tact in describing it, this event was no small matter.

Nagavanshi did not convene meetings unless her information was explosive.

According to the documents, rescue teams found a survivor from the Imperial Fleet, who had connections among the nobility and military. In exchange for her life, not knowing that the Union intended to imprison rather than execute her, she attested to the Emperor having fallen with a terminal illness and being pronounced all but officially dead. The Grand Duchies, the major states that made up the Empire’s territory, were eager to back their own claimants to the throne. All of this, while Prince Erich von Fueller, the heir apparent, was off in the Great Ayre Reach fighting the Republic. According to the source, the reason for the Southern Border Fleet’s attack on the Union was the ambition of Admiral Gottwald to form his own faction in the coming strife.

For as little as the Premier made it seem in her casual speech, this was earthshaking news. Upon the eve of his coup, Konstantin von Fueller had dared the aristocracy to move against him. For fifty years they slumbered under his control. Now he was dead: and now, they would awaken.

“Mere imperial troops would not have had access to that kind of information. That would have only been known to Admirals and their associates, as they freely cavort with the aristocracy in a way that none below their rank are truly able to. So there was no need to interrogate the lower ranking survivors. Simply put, I trust the girl’s information. I believe we should act on it. By the time more overt signs of its veracity manifest themselves we may be too late to take advantage.”

Nagavanshi was prepared for the questioning. After all, she did not get to her own position without being meticulously confident in her words. As necessary as intelligence agents and internal security were for the Union, the power invested in them meant that not just anybody could be given the position. Her predecessors had each been politically purged after a year in office.

Jayasankar grinned. “Good answer. But I know that there is more being left unsaid.”

Nagavanshi said nothing. Her expression was purely neutral. She was hiding something.

“You used the ELF, didn’t you? I know you contacted someone with it.”

No response from the Commissar-General. In her place the Admiral was confounded.

“ELF is only for emergencies.” Klasnikov said. “And it can only contact ships.”

“Absolutely.” Jayasankar turned her gaze from the Admiral and back to the Commissar-General, putting her hands on her hips, still smiling. “Nagavanshi communicated with a ship.”

Klasnikov blinked. “Which one of our ships is going into Imperial waters?”

“Before we tightened our shipbuilding program, we supplied militarized civilian ships to Campos Mountain that were equipped with our ELF.” Nagavanashi finally said. Klasnikov stared at her in confusion. “I acquired such a ship and transferred it to an important asset. Satisfied?”

Jayasankar crossed her arms, grinning. She’d gotten her; of course she did.

The Premier had already won this exchange before they even entered the room.

“You thought I wouldn’t find out?” She asked.

“I had ultimate oversight over Extremely Low Frequency comms.” Nagavanshi said.

“You’re not the only one with agents everywhere, Parvati.”

Fiddling around with her pocket, Jayasankar produced a vaporizer and nonchalantly took a sweet drag from it that smelled of strawberries. She had hoped to see Nagavanshi wither in the silence, but unfortunately, the Commissar-General was simply too strong, too well-kept together.

“Your predecessors were purged for this sort of behavior, you know?”

She pointed the vaporizer at the Commissar-General.

Nagavanshi did not stir. Though she was caught out, she was never cornered.

“I was acting for the greater good of this nation. I came prepared today to divulge a lot of information and make the case for my methods. Foreign intelligence is an absolute necessity for modern warfare. Without the assets I have put into place, we will become increasingly blind to events in the Empire. I shall accept whatever decision our esteemed Premier makes, of course.”

Her voice was sweet as honey. She had really turned up the charm for that declaration.

Despite how much of a fucking bitch she was, Jayasankar admired Nagavanshi’s drive.

Being stricken from the communist party was not something that would bother her.

She was a purely material person who did not care one bit about appearances.

It was certain that if she were shut out of official power she would find power elsewhere.

At least she’s my little tyrant, Jayasankar told herself.

Those other Commissar-Generals served under other Premiers anyway.

“You can contact your agent via ELF. How did you get information back?”

Jayasankar stabbed her little vaporizer into the air for dramatic effect as her interrogation continued. Nagavanshi continued to betray no emotion over being put on the spot in this way.

“That’s true,” Klasnikov realized. “You can’t open laser or acoustic contact with the Empire.”

“And she’s had nowhere near enough time for an agent to physically travel back here.”

Come on, Parvati, fess up, the Premier was certain that Nagavanshi had more to unveil.

Nagavanshi withdrew something from her pocket and connected it to a serial port in the table computer. After the table had read the contents of the diskette and found it to contain nothing dangerous, it gave the attendants access to the contents. The Commissar-General drew everyone’s attention to one specific item, which was displayed on the table as a floating holographic diagram of what looked like a coilgun shell, albeit a very strange one. No warhead; only a transmitter.

Once the diagram was available, Nagavanshi explained its significance.

“I’ve been putting serious research consideration into our operational capacity behind enemy lines. We’re too sentimental about ‘revolutionary warfare’, but guerilla war is a viable path for us if we consider communications and logistics. This transmitter shell allows us to fire a radio out to the surface, where we can use waves through the air transmit information. We’ve installed a buoy in the calm water over Lyser. While the surface corruption over most of the Imbrium will damage the transmitter, it will be active long enough to send a message to our buoy.”

She swiped from the diagram of the transmitter to a diagram of the buoy.

“Information from the buoy is transmitted back to us in the aphotic zone via cable. Due to animal activity, and the surface’s corruption, even in the calm waters at Lyser it is likely that the buoy will be severed or destroyed, but we can replace it if needed. At any rate: I contacted my agent via ELF to tell her to deploy a radio-flare with the most up to date information she had.”

“Did you come prepared to divulge this information?” the Premier asked her.

“It was going to be part of my overall proposal.”

Klasnikov had been staring at her with eyes wide open.

“So, to summarize. You gave a ship, and experimental technology, to somebody out in the Empire and they have confirmed to you, via these circumspect methods, that the Emperor is dead?”

“They’ve confirmed a lot more than that, but yes.” Nagavanshi said.

“Premier, this is rather outrageous, wouldn’t you say?” Klasnikov said.

Jayasankar ignored that remark. “How trustworthy is your source?”

“She is a hero to this country. She is prepared to give her life for me, and I for her.”

Both Jayasankar and Klasnikov were stunned.

That was highly uncharacteristic of how the Commissar-General ever spoke.

And as far as Jayasankar knew, it was the sort of thing Nagavanshi didn’t believe in.

There was no denying the expression on her face, however. Gone was the peerless calm.

It looked almost as if Nagavanshi herself could not believe what she had said.

She had the face of someone who knew they had committed a youthful indiscretion.

And done so amid her venerated, powerful elders.

Jayasankar sighed heavily. For her, the expert political operator who had come prepared and plotted everything meticulously, this was the first truly unpredictable event of the day. She almost wanted to ask if Nagavanshi and her agent had ever fucked. It was an open question now in her mind. And what kind of powers did it take to chisel through the rock to Nagavanshi’s heart?

Nagavanshi knew precisely that the only way forward was for her to bare some of her soul.

And for that, Jayasankar could only think she was an even more manipulative piece of shit than she had previously imagined. To have honesty and vulnerability become your trump cards–

“You’re horrible, Nagavanshi, but I am impressed. I think at this point, you should just tell us what you convened us for and lay out your plans. This gathering has become too messy.”

Nagavanshi let out a breath with visible relief.

Klasnikov shook his head solemnly. “Let us move forward with honesty.”

He sounded as if he himself could not hope for such a rosey outcome.

“I will be blunt then. I propose we launch an operation to infiltrate the Empire. Then we will make contact with dissident forces in the eastern end of the Nectaris and Imbrium Oceans.”

At Nagavanshi’s behest, the diagrams of the buoys and radio-flares disappeared.

In their place there was a diagram of a ship.

Then, in the next moment, that diagram became a camera feed of the actual ship.

It was, at that very second, docked in a VIP berth in Thassal.

“You probably find this ship’s exterior unimpressive. We used old hauler hulls to make it seem civilian. However, inside, it is a radical new design. This ship is intended to carry and support Divers in battle. It can hold up to 18 Divers. Its name is the Brigand, and I have classified it as an Assault Carrier. It will carry out a long-term mission to contact and organize Imperial dissidents.”

The Brigand was a two-tiered ship, its silhouette wide and broad, almost diamond shaped due to the angle at which the two planes of the top deck and along the keel met in the centerline, with a thick, flat prow. It was not impressive: it did look like an old hauler, down to the rusty color. Its shape was poorly hydrodynamic, and it looked heavy. The conning tower was thick and square with an additional triangular surface atop. There appeared to be no weapons along its surface.

“The Ashura put this together?” Jayasankar asked. It was not beyond the realm of possibility. They were a military force. It was still impressive that they kept it so close to the chest.

“We had help from the shipbuilder’s union at Central Yard.” Nagavanshi said.

That would explain it. The Yard was the strongest labor union in Solstice.

“And your intention,” Klasnikov interrupted, “is for this ship to sail into the Empire and make contact with dissident groups? What will it do when it reaches them? If by Eloah’s mercy it manages to reach any group, without being destroyed or captured by the Empire along the way?”

Nagavanshi scoffed. “Soon the Empire will be plunged into civil war. Its defenses will be porous. The Brigand is a state-of-the-art vessel, like I told you, don’t judge it by its appearances. It is fast, survivable, and has systems in place for stealth or escape. Not only that, in addition to its Diver capacity it also has a cargo hull that we will fill with more weapons and goods for our foreign comrades. It is my intention that we will supply weaponry to insurgent groups. However, our true objective is to advance one major resistance movement and prime the Empire for a revolution.”

Jayasankar crossed her arms. Nagavanshi’s true motives were unexpected.

It was true that the Union was in a difficult situation. Militarily, their combat power was maybe 1/5th of the total Imperial power. Divided across its Grand Duchies, the Empire had thousands of ships, while the Union’s total Navy was just over 1000. The Republic slammed 800 ships into the Empire, barely made a dent and lost. Conventional warfare would eventually see the Union being overwhelmed and destroyed. However, if indeed the Grand Duchies turned against the central government at Rhinea, and there was a power struggle between Prince Fueller and several other factions, that gave the Union a board with entirely different rules to play with.

Jayasankar ran the options as she saw them in her own head.

One potential reaction would be to launch a Union invasion of the Southern Empire. Such an open attack, however, could potentially unite multiple Duchies into a mutual defense pact which would lead to the Union being overwhelmed or outflanked, and which would distract the Imperial nobles from Erich Fueller, who might gain the upper hand while this Noble Alliance is distracted.

They could attempt to contact and ally with Erich Fueller, to parlay support for time or legitimacy. However, Erich was in the best position of anyone, with the strongest and most loyal military forces and civilian subjects. He was pragmatic, inheriting none of his father’s eccentricity. He was born under the uncertainty of his father’s coup. He was always ready to fight for the throne.

Allying with any one Grand Duchy was impossible ideologically. All of the Imperial boyars shared a great hatred of the Union, and the Union was held together in part by its fear and hatred of the Empire. For the Union to “upset the game,” it would need to build and deploy power entirely differently than the Empire. It could not count on traditional measures against them.

By tapping into its own history of armed, worker-led revolution; that was Nagavanshi’s idea for the Union response. While Jayasankar could definitely complain about the instruments carrying out the Commissar’s will, it was an ambitious plot. There was a lot of discontent among the lower and middle classes of the Empire, and due to its size the Empire had difficulty policing thoroughly its various territories. That the Union existed at all was a testament to the power of imperial dissident movements. The Union’s states were initially settled as penal colonies.

“Ultimately, your idea is to gather a dissident army in one place and spark a rebellion. So what movements can you contact, and in which territories?” Jayasankar asked Nagavanshi.

“We have a list.” Nagavanshi said. “And as circumstances permit we want the Brigand to meet all of them. However, our major ally in the region will be the National Front of Buren.”

“Not Bosporus?” Jayasankar asked.

Bosporus was supposed to be special, Jayasankar thought.

Historians could easily say the Union was born in Bosporus.

Even after the revolution, the two states shared a connection that was greater than merely one of historical population movements. Goods, people, currency and secrets flowed out of the far north, crossing the poles and arriving in the southern oceans of the Union. In return, Union influence spread into the Empire through the underbelly of Bosporus. Dissidents from the Empire always sought asylum within the mordecist experiment of the Union. Bosporus would be the Premier’s choice, if she had to make a decision as to where to grow Imperial dissidence.

Nagavanshi shook her head. “It is true that Bosporus is the most ideologically developed of the Imperial states in its intellectual dissidence, and the secessionists there have a leftist character that I did take into account. But Bosporus is a hotbed for communalist ideology. It would create another place like Campos Mountain, and be an ineffective partner for us. The Bureni nationalists have vanguardist organization, militancy, a leader, and mordecist leanings.”

“I don’t like this.” Klasnikov said. “This is a suicide mission, Bhavani.”

“With our current naval power, can we win militarily against the Empire?”

Jayasankar asked Klasnikov this. The Admiral was reticent to answer.

“Not now, but we can build toward the future if we don’t send this prototype ship out to die in Imperial waters. I believe we should keep it here and augment our frontline power with it.”

Jayasankar smiled. She was sympathetic to that.

But more and more she realized it was not their reality.

“Hope springs eternal.” She said cryptically. Klasnikov furrowed his brows.

“The Brigand is useless in a defensive war! Its characteristics are purposely designed for guerilla warfare. It has less direct combat weapons than any cruiser its size and it was designed purely for endurance. I refuse to assign it to meaningless fleet tasks.” Nagavanshi replied.

“Right now, Sorokin, if we keep waiting, I feel the situation will only worsen for us.”

Jayasankar stared the Admiral in the eye, calling him by his name.

“Bhavani, I know you trust this woman, but I don’t, and I can’t agree to this.”

Klasnikov stared back. Nagavanshi held her peace in the middle, between the two.

“She has already violated our trust several times.”

His eyes were almost pleading. Jayasankar was not moved.

She did not get to her own position by being fully honest with everybody.

Even in the Union, a state that was a mother to its people, politics was still played.

“Sorokin, Parvati is correct here. At the moment, if we wait and engage in conventional tactics we will lose everything. But we can take a gamble; and though we may sacrifice a few souls in so doing, we stand to fundamentally alter the world.” Jayasankar said. “You know why it has to be the Duchy of Buren. If Buren has a revolution, it will cripple Imperial Agarthicite production.”

“I understand that perfectly. However this counterveils every hard-fought lesson we know about war. How will the Brigand be supplied? How will it remain in contact? How would we even know that it is alive or dead in the waters at any given moment? After we launch it, we’ve lost control of the situation, and furthermore, have no way to aid it inside of Imperial territory.”

Nagavanshi brought up a map on the table computer.

It was a map of the broader Empire, with the Nectaris and Imbrium both represented. There were several spots on the map, tracing a potential route. She pointed at three different spots where the route brought the Brigand back to Nectaris. At other times, it was deep in the Imperial core.

“We can have it take a circuitous route that brings it close to the borders of Campos Mountain and Solstice at certain points. That will allow us to check back in with it. As for the rest, they will rely on their wits. I’m putting together a crew of people with many different skills. And in addition, if we clue in the Republic, they will use their own networks to help us also.”

“Just a few minutes ago you were attacking the Republic as a weak ally.” Klasnikov said.

“Weak, but useful and willing. If there’s anything good about them it’s their intelligence.”

“Will we see a crew roster?” Jayasankar said.

“I’ll share one when it is ready.” Nagavanshi replied.

“You really are a terrible girl. You think you can do anything you want.”

Jayasankar scolded her, but it was almost more motherly than authoritarian.

“It’s time to move quickly.” Nagavanshi said. “Do you accept my proposal?”

On the table, dozens of windows appeared with additional information.

All of it was at first shaded, but with a quick swipe of her hand, Nagavanshi dramatically decrypted every document. Names and faces, vast sheets of logistics math, numerous tables. The work of years of secretive planning, thousands of communications, all of it laid bare. Again the Admiral and the Premier were left speechless at the apparatus that Nagavanshi had constructed. Her Ashura, the serpents tasked with keeping order, had built a ship, and plotted a revolution.

“I’ve laid out everything I’ve planned, and everything that is available to me. There are no more secrets, only work that lies ahead of us. Everything I’ve done, I’ve done to make sure nothing compromises our purpose. Without taking revolutionary action, our revolution will be destroyed.”

Jayasankar crossed her arms, smiling. She took a long drag of her vaporizer. “Well, we can’t very well just dump all this effort in the sea, can we?” She finally said.


Previous ~ Next

The Third Battle of Thassalid Trench [2.1]

The Imperial Southern Border Fleet had an impressive advantage in numbers over the Union defenders at Thassal. With over 70 vessels to around 30 combat-ready Union ships, even with basic barrage tactics they would have easily routed the Union vessels. But Fleet Admiral Gottwald wanted more than a rout. He would accept no less than the Union’s total destruction.

 In his view, the way to achieve this was to preemptively split into two fleets in a strategy to trap the Union forces amid a barrage from two sides. Kampfgruppe Kosz, commanded by the Admiral’s most trusted officers, remained on course for Thassal. He expected the battle would be joined in the broad, open plain just before the trench fissure itself. He would command the rest of the fleet personally, carefully maneuvering through a series of rocky highlands known to the Union as Konev’s Mountain, and then descending on the Union flank once they were out in the open.

Admiral Gottwald was convinced of the genius of his strategy. Had those Union thugs even conceived of a flanking maneuver? Did they even post scouts? They would fall to the Imperial art of war perfected over generations. He would win; he was already planning his next move.

It was not the Union that concerned him most. He’d make worse enemies soon.

Taming the barbarians was just a steppingstone to his rise.

“I’ll have to give my thanks to that moron Groessen in hell. If there was one man in this Navy who would shoot first no matter the cost to himself, it would be the good old Duke.”

In the vast, throne room-like command pod of his flagship, the Strasser, Admiral Gottwald stood above his command staff, whose stations were recessed below his own and arrayed around him. All of them had been well taught to mind their own business. There was one voice of sheepish dissent that came from his secretary. She clutched a circular medallion on a chain and mumbled.

“Sir, with all due respect, is it truly proper to slander this man in death?”

“Who’s to say it is slander? You?”

Had it not been her niece, he certainly would have treated her far worse. Instead, he found it amusing to argue with her. As a devout Solceanist she was an easy target for logical argument.

“We don’t know what happened sir–”

“What happened is immaterial. We’re already set on our course.”

Once upon a time, Duke Groessen had been the nobleman in charge of a large portion of the Thassalid territory. Upon the Union uprising, his stature vastly diminished. All Dukes had to perform military duties for the Emperor. Groessen’s domain shrunk to such an extent that all he could do was patrol a strip of border and wait with his hands on his lap, cursing his fortunes.

He was easy prey for Gottwald’s machinations. All he needed was a mission to die for.

With his death, there was immediate cause to reprimand and suppress the Union, but that was less important. There was also no legitimate claim to much of Union territory anymore.

Lands, and vassals to tap into, would soon play a major role in Imperial politics.

Gottwald was not a noble. He was pure military. He had no domains of his own, either to govern nor to exploit for advantage. However, in the coming storm, blood would only go so far. If he could capture the materials and industry of the Union, he would be a Duke in all but name.

“That old bastard will soon perish. There are already significant factions marshalling all of their resources. With Prince Erich deployed to the Ayre Reach, this will be our only chance for us to secure a potential base of power. The Southern Border Fleet is the weakest fleet in the Empire. But with the resources of Ferris at our disposal, we will be undoubtedly relevant to the outcome.”

There was a dawning realization upon the gentle eyes of his niece. As a God-fearing woman, the Lèse-majesté would not have upset her, for the Solceanists believed in the Light-Giver above the surface and placed their faith in him over their imperial duty. Perhaps, however, the scope of current events had finally struck her as an everyday citizen amid the coming chaos.

She made no comment about the state of the Empire. But her expression was troubled.

“Can the Southern Border Fleet truly overturn the Union sir? After all these years?”

Admiral Gottwald smiled.

“We have never seriously tried. They are mere gnats. If it were not for the Republic putting pressure on us, we would have crushed them already. It was the hope that Prince Erich could bloody the Republic enough for a ceasefire, allowing us to march on the Union freely. But that’s a future that’s not worth speaking of, except for this: the Union stands no chance against us.”

On a computer screen hovering just in front of his chair, was a map of the Union territories, with projected enemy deployment and the projected pace of both of his fleets. Soon the pincer would wrap around the enemy’s forces, and their total defeat would inevitably follow. Admiral Gottwald would cease to merely be the Empire’s lookout on the wild frontier. In his own right, perhaps, he could become a king. Or he might just settle for being among those to crown the next.

“Besides, we don’t need to conquer all the Union. If Ferris falls, those cowards will simply hide in the fortresses at Solstice and wait for better tides. We need only cow them into obedience. They were slaves once. A sufficient drubbing from their masters will render them docile.”

Admiral Gottwald sat back on his chair and silently bid his niece to stand at his side.

Obedient, yet sheepishly clutching her little sun icon, she joined him.

“All stations report. We should be seeing the enemy, and our allies.”

There was a generalized murmur among the specialists charged with sonar detection.

On the Admiral’s minicomputer, the sonar readings and their interpretation appeared.

Admiral Gottwald stared at it, dumbfounded.         

His hands were shaking. He could not accept what he saw.


Previous ~ Next

The Roar That Parted The Currents [1.3]

This scene contains a graphic depiction of consensual sex.

Murati wondered if she would still come tonight.

They had promised, but then–

As brief as the fight was, she had been awful to Karuniya with those few words.

At least there was electricity in the hall now.

When she got home after her meeting, and the subsequent events she wanted far, far from her mind, her hallway’s power had been restored. When she arrived, her synthesizer music was blaring again, barely muffled by the door. A gaggle of engineers, still working on the farther parts of her hallway, stared at her as she appeared before them, ‘the owner of the very noisy room.’

“It’s DJ Hard Roe!” She shouted at them, an attempt at humor they did not appreciate.

Everyone got back to work and Murati disappeared into her room.

First thing she did was use the panel near the door to quiet her music.

She then sank back against the closed door behind her and sighed deeply.

All the way down the door, until she was seated with her arms around her knees.

The silence in the room just made her head pound harder with shame and anxiety.

“Stupid. You’re so fucking stupid; arrogant, stuck up, bitch. Stupid.”

All of it was meant to assail herself. She could not fault Karuniya anything now.

She pounded her fist on the door behind her.

Her alarm clock continued to count the minutes and seconds. It was 1100 hours now.

She had a full day ahead of her still.

Time kept moving. Life went on. Murati just had to deal with it.

Sighing deeply, she stood up, one hand on the door, another on the wall panel.

DJ Hard Roe’s “Abyssal Love” album then began to play once more.

There was a rich sound to it. DJ Hard Roe really took advantage of the ever-increasing sophistication of computer software to make fascinating sounds, but she wove in traditional melodies to create what she dubbed “the sound of modern sex.” Murati quietly revered her style.

It was the soundtrack to most of her days, ever since its release a year ago.

Perhaps not the sound of modern sex, for her, at least not then or most days.

To her, it was the sound of everyday life beneath the currents.

Sometimes gentle, sometimes harsh. Erratic, shifting; then dramatically winding down.

Murati sighed. Life went on. When next she saw Karuniya, she would apologize.

For now, as she recognized before, she had a whole day to live, here, by herself.

From the nightstand drawer, she removed her reading glasses and set them on the table.

She then removed an injector and a bottle of medicine and set them there too.

Her coat was still practically spotless. She put it and her pants back in the wardrobe.

She removed her full bodysuit and changed out into a two-piece swimsuit instead.

The top was sleeveless, front-zipped and cut just above the belly; and the bottom was a pair of shorts, all made of plastic and synthetic fiber. All black, and unlike the tight bodysuit it had a bit more give. This was the sort of suit you could wear comfortably around your room.

Uniform policy for the military required full suits for meetings and combat alert.

Around her room, a sporty two-piece was just the thing for Murati.

She closed the wardrobe and pressed a button on the wall.

Had the music not been so loud, she would have heard the wardrobe mist her clothes with moisture and a cleaning solution. Then a warm mist and a strong fan would have dried them off.

Murati hovered back to the drawer.

She picked up the injector and filled it with medicine.

Gently, she ran a finger down the end of the injector. It was sharp.

With one hand she pulled her bottom down a little below the hip.

Her other hand stabbed the injector into her side and pushed down the button on the back.

She gritted her teeth. It hurt; it wasn’t supposed to, but she had made it hurt.

There was something cathartic about it. Both the self-loathing, and the hormones.

“Fuck.” She mumbled. “You suck, Murati.”

She pulled the injector out and dropped it on the nightstand. There was a dribble of blood.

When she mastered herself and ceased to cringe at the pain, Murati tremulously opened the drawer and put the vial of medicine back inside. There was more medicine in there. A pill bottle; and a few packets of powder meant to dissolve below her tongue. She looked over the packets.

She had asked her doctor for the powder. For a special occasion she had said sheepishly.

Like the condoms also in the drawer, it was likely to now go unused.

She threw them back in the drawer and withdrew the pill bottle.

Taking two yellow pills from it, she walked over to one of the wall panels.

At the push of a button the shower opened. It was not only a shower: it was a very cramped full bathroom. To even get in she had to push the toilet down below the level of the floor with one foot, at which point it would lock in and become the vent for the dirty shower water.

She was not too tall, and she was fairly lean, and still with the door closed, she would be packed in, her arms at her sides, only really able to turn with some effort and reach up or down to scrub herself. She felt like a canned fish, packed in with soapy water or foamy mist.

There were barely centimeters of headroom at the top.

Water usage was controlled, as the machine was programmed with its weekly allotment. Foamy soap was dispensed from the sides and the roof, water could be sprayed, misted, or dispensed as a full shower, and water for drinking could be procured as well.

It was this latter function that Murati now desired.

She opened a tiny side-drawer and produced a reusable cup.

From one of the rear water sprayers she filled the cup.

She took her pills, and drank some cold, clear fortified drinking water.

Refreshed, her medical regimen taken care of, she closed the shower and sat on her bed.

“So Murati, what now?”

It was 1135 hours, and the whole day was still ahead.

Murati laid back in bed, facing the wall, and pressed her fingers on the panel.

Everything was context sensitive. In a sense, her entire wall was the panel, and any square she touched could become controls. The screen was poor quality. Even the minicomputer she looked at back at the Navy HQ was easier on the eyes. Text and images were poorly rendered, so browsing BBSes on her wall was a pain. It was really only good for daily tasks and playing music. The room’s computer box was under her bed, along with her modest collection of diskettes.

There was LAN access, but for anything other than official broadcasts it was quite slow.

Between the clunkiness of the room computer and the power outages, she ultimately asked for and received a battery-powered alarm clock that could reliably remind her of scheduled tasks.

She wished she had loaned a minicomputer from the library.

For a moment, she switched off the music from the computer and tuned into a broadcast over the local area network. It took a moment to receive, both because establishing a LAN connection was arduous, and her computer itself was old and overburdened. When the connection finally got through, and stabilized, it was rock solid, however. While the picture was terrible, even when she tried to restrict it to only occupying one wall without blending into the ceiling, the audio was pretty crisp. You could definitely rely on Union audio equipment, even if the screens still needed a lot of work. Because it was a priority stream, once connected, the broadcast was smooth.

An older man behind a desk read off the day’s announcements in a rich voice.

“–In agricultural news, Lyser’s Agricultural Institute is reporting Corn and Soybean yields are ahead of plan, with a surplus of 18% for the first growing season of 979 AD. Rather than distributing greater amounts of these products, the Union Agricultural Commissariat, in a highly criticized decision, have opted to retain the surplus to grow the strategic reserve as part of the Two-Year Famine Protection Program. In a statement, the Commissariat spokespersons indicated that the allotments are currently ‘In a good place’ and that nutrition has been even, equitable and high quality in the Union. They urged citizens to look ahead and help the country future-proof its food supply by maintaining consumption at these levels and doing their best to work toward surpluses. Lyser has also reported a small increase in the amount of primary pollinator production–”

Murati tapped the panel to swap back to music.

Agricultural news was extremely important to the Union because it was a Plan Year.

It was not Murati’s interest or forte, however.

A few more taps, and her walls began to display moody colors for ambiance.

DJ Hard Roe returned to life with the rebellious, crackly beats of “Euphotic Hatefuck.”

Murati donned her glasses and withdrew one of her books from the pile.

“Remember to return these.” She mumbled. But she would not. Not yet anyway.

All of them had thick binding and covers. They were called “limestone paper” books but the pages were made of a complicated mineral compound, with some petrol products in there too. She could get books loaded as text files on a minicomputer, from the same library where she got the books. But there was something she liked about the physical books. Perhaps there were less distractions involved. Or their immediacy: turning the pages for example. Murati could not pin it down. But she would rather read about the Empire’s wars against Alaize to its west, on paper.

It was 1216 and she still had the whole day ahead of her.

At 1300 hours however, she was informed of a visitor at her door.

The alert appeared on the wall and muted her music.

“Lunch! Ms. Nakara, your combined lunch– would you like ‘A’ or ‘B’ today?”

“I’ll take ‘B.’ Please leave it at the door.”

Murati called out. She was not dressed modestly enough for polite company.

“Sure thing! Please pick it up while it’s still warm.”

This was the last thing the delivery boy said before the music kicked back in.

After a few moments had passed, Murati cracked open the door, slipped her arm out and pulled the lunchbox into the room. It was a white plastic case with a spork included.

Inside, the box was divided into four courses.

There was a corn flatbread, a portion of pickled lettuce with an oily tomato relish, a soybean and yeast cutlet, and a fruit preserve. The pickles looked crisp, but the flatbread was a little stiff. The protein cutlet was slightly firm on the outside, soft inside, and coated in a bit of sauce, probably flavored with more yeast, corn or soy, or all three. On top of the cornbread there was a little packet of citrus powder, to be torn open, spilled into a cup and drank with water from the shower.

She wondered what was in the ‘A’ menu. She liked the cutlets, so she lucked out. 

Murati picked up her cup, mixed herself the citrus drink and with military discipline, quickly devoured her lunch. She did pause to taste the cutlet, which had a nice, sweet-and-savory taste. In a matter of minutes, she had eaten. A box lunch was not usually a meal to obsess over. One did not even order such meals. They were provided daily to every Station resident.

When she was done, she opened a slot in the wall and sent the box down a chute.

Wherever it was that they went, they would be recycled for materials.

Murati then spent the next several hours in her books.

There was not really day or night for her. The Station environment harkened back to these strange contradictions of human life in its present state: at some point during the course of the day her lights automatically dimmed just a little, when the computer believed she should be winding down for the day. But Murati would simply raise the brightness of the room lights back.

In a fit of pique, she finally got up from her bed.

Murati stepped into the shower, underwear and all.

She got a splash of water, a mist of freshner and then a warm spray to dry herself off.

Her next destination was her wardrobe.

She pushed her uniforms and wetwear aside. In one corner, she had a pair of sleek pants, dark blue with strips of translucent material below the thigh, as well as a button up synthetic white shirt with a black collar and elbow-length sleeves. Both had been acquired for a special occasion.

“Might as well not let them go to waste.”

She put the shirt on, buttoning it up to just over her breasts. She then unzipped her swimsuit top until the zip was right below the buttons: that way she exposed her collar and just the littlest bit of her chest. The pants, she wore without a belt. Everything fit perfectly; she could see her whole look for herself in the mirror in the back of the wardrobe.

Just like the models in the culture ‘zines.

She had seen the clothes on a dummy in a co-op. Murati had little sense of fashion.

But Karuniya, who had tagged along to shop, liked the look of them.

“That tall, dark soft-butch look really suits you.” Karuniya had said.

“I’m more like average and lightly toasted.” Murati had replied.

“If you really believed in yourself, you’d be so hot, you know?”

Murati did not exchange for the clothes right then.

She did come, sans Karuniya, the next day. And then she acquired them.

They had cost her half of her credits, but it was worth it.

Even if Karuniya was not there to see it, the clothes were amazingly comfortable.

She liked the look. Particularly the gap of brown skin at her neck and collarbone area.

While the pants really clung to her, they felt so easy to move in.

Murati did feel like a much more confident woman was staring back from the mirror.

A woman in her prime, lean with a refined expression and striking features, rebelliously short and untidy black hair, auburn eyes that shone with glamor, strong shoulders, long legs.

She was a complete and total specimen.

This woman could do anything.

She might even apologize to Karuniya for today.

Heaving a long sigh, Murati made for the bed and dropped herself on it.

It was 18:05 and around this time was when she had expected to have a date.

Instead, she was alone.

She hated the way that she reacted to Karuniya and she could not keep it out of her mind any longer. While she cared about her career (and who could say that this opportunity would not advance it?) she knew from the bottom of her heart that she cared about Karuniya too. And even if they never dated again, she would absolutely hate losing her dearest friend in the station.

“I should go talk to her.”

Her legs wouldn’t move. There was still an unearned sense of stupid pride in her.

She sighed again. She almost considered turning down the synths. The throbbing, sensual sounds of “Two Dolphins Meet Far Away From Home” were starting to compound the difficulty she had coming to any decision or making herself accept anything that had happened. On most days, the soundscape helped her to focus and drown out distraction. Today, everything was a mess.

Her legs still wouldn’t move. “God damn it, what am I doing?” She shouted.

That particular decision, at least, would be taken out of her hands.

Her music paused again by itself, mid-shout.

Murati sat up suddenly.

There was a notification on the wall. Someone was knocking on the door.

Because this was someone authorized to the room computer, an ID image was shown.

Shoulder-length hair, bright eyes, olive skin. An innocent smile.

She had taken this picture at the Academy, with her hair dyed green.

“I brought a peace offering.”

Karuniya called from the other side of the door.

Murati was still as hesitant as before to speak. To own up; to apologize.

Nevertheless, she found herself quietly opening the door.

“I know you’re annoyed with me.” Her partner said.

Karuniya walked in with a confident strut. She knew what she was doing.

She had a bottle in hand and a smile on her softly painted lips.

Like Murati, she had also dressed up for the date night they had promised to have.

“I’m not annoyed with you.” Murati said, trying not to stare too much.

How could anyone be annoyed with someone who looked like that?

Karuniya had also changed out of her full suit. Instead she wore a light-blue one-piece, front-zipped, with a high leg-line and exposed shoulders. Over it she wore an off-shoulder crop top with long, translucent sleeves, all yellow, buttoned just over her breasts, along with a skirt and stockings of a similar color and make. The skirt had a gap around the hips to expose skin.

Those materials had to be synthetic and petroleum products. There wasn’t a cotton shirt in sight in Thassal, or much of the Union. It was too expensive, the growing space at too much of a premium. And yet, the make was so state-of-the-art, so fashionable, Murati almost mistook it.

Murati always found her face radiant; but she had made herself up a bit more.

Her hair had a glittery sheen, still hanging behind her back but brushed with a little more care. Her lips were painted just slightly reddish pink. Her cheeks glittered, flushed slightly pink with a hint of makeup powder. She must have been saving this stuff — it was all amazing. Murati was transfixed with Karuniya as she moved past her to set the bottle down on the nightstand.

“I always thought it was really hardcore how you injected it.”

While Murati was busy staring at Karuniya, the scientist had been dissecting the room. Her eyes had settled on the injector and medicine bottle that was left discarded on the nightstand.

She just barely mastered herself in time to respond with intellect over libido.

“Injections have higher doses than pills. You take them less often.”

“You already take like two pills for other stuff, so do you actually gain any time?”

She had a point, but Murati did not invite her over for health coaching.

In fact, she had been reasonably certain the invitation would be off, after what happened.

“Want a drink? We’ll have to pass around your cup.” Karuniya said.

Murati felt that Karuniya was pointedly avoiding discussing the events from earlier.

She decided to play along. If she was honest with herself, she was happy to see Karuniya.

And that was a response, she assured herself, made with intellect over libido.

“I can’t well turn it down if you went out of your way to get it.” She said.

Karuniya’s bottle contained a sweetened and watered-down corn wine.

They twisted off the cap and poured themselves a cup of the clear brown drink. They sat on the bedside and took turns drinking. Lyser corn wine was a special drink: there was a process to it. Most people would have just gotten a drink of raw corn alcohol and watered it down if they wanted to get drunk. Corn wine was an experience. Of the milieu of flavors, the taste of sweet corn was strongest. Corn wine lived up to its name. Each sip was frothy and slick, coating the tongue. Then followed the sting of the liquor, and the warming sensation as it flowed down the throat.

“This is pretty good.” Murati said. She gently tilted the cup, sloshing the liquor.

“Lyser had a good crop this year! Whatever year this was.” Karuniya said.

She lifted the cup as if to toast and took a sip.

“Year XXX, a good vintage.” Murati joked. Karuniya even laughed at it.

“I’m hungry. Let’s get something! We can pool our credits together if we need to.”

Karuniya put down the bottle on the nightstand. Any wall in the room, save for the sliding doors for the shower and other utilities which had their own controls there, could become a portal for the room computer. Over the nightstand, she put in a request for the food administration page.

Murati, still playing along nonchalantly, simply watched.

A grainy window appeared a few minutes later. Communicating with the wider community of the Station through the LAN was not instantaneous. Broadcasts had bandwidth priority and messages were slow. Eventually their patience was rewarded with the room service page.

“A menu or B menu?” Karuniya asked. Murati simply shrugged.

Like magic, a few minutes later, there were a few knocks on the door.

Once the delivery was made, Murati simply picked up the food at her doorstep.

Dinner was similar to lunch, with the addition of a soup cup and pickled eggs. There was a potato salad, bread, and a savory protein cutlet, likely soy and specially bred yeast.

The two of them sat on the floor with their backs to the bedframe.

“Not exactly a candle-lit co-op table date.” Murati sighed.

“What is a date, but the two people who are together?”

Karuniya sidled up to her on the bed and linked their arms together, holding Murati’s hand.

There was a sweet scent wafting up from her that reminded Murati of the botanical garden at the Academy. Flowers; barely seen outside of a lab in the Union. But their scent was still there. Had Karuniya gone to visit the garden? Did she shed tears under the heavy scent of the plants?

That image was just too painful for Murati to keep ignoring.

“I’m sorry.” Murati said.

“I’m sorry too.” Karuniya said. She held up a finger to Murati’s lips before she could tell her that there was nothing for her to apologize for. She knew Murati too well. “No, Murati, I was presumptuous. We’re not kids doing group projects anymore. This is for our careers. I should have asked you and realized your feelings. I’m taking responsibility for this too. If you want out–”

“I don’t!” Murati said, gently guiding Karuniya’s finger off her lips. “I want to do this. A ship is a ship; a mission is a mission. I’m going to learn new things and see new sights, with you.”

Karuniya was surprised. Murati even surprised herself, with the forcefulness of her words.

She had only given it an inkling of thought throughout the day. Now that she had put it into words and advocated it to herself from a broader view, she actually felt a little excited. After all, she had been afraid of leaving Karuniya forever, or vice versa. Now they had their own ship.

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely.”

Determination clearly shone in Murati’s face. Karuniya’s posture softened.

“Let’s toast to it then!” She said.

“How?” Murati asked. “We’ve only got one cup.”

“I can think of a way.”

Karuniya lifted the cup for a toast, took a drink, and pulled Murati into a kiss.

Sweet corn, stinging alcohol and a warm tongue stole through her unguarded lips.

“Toast!”

Pulling back, Karuniya giggled. Murati, her heart beating quickly, suppressed a laugh.

“You’re always up to something.” She said. “You’ve got an evil genius to you.”

“You’re right. I’m most definitely an evil genius. But at least I’m not a troublemaker.”

She dipped her flatbread in the soup and took a dramatic bite from it, winking.

“What was that?” Murati laughed. “What was that gesture even supposed to mean?”

“Eat up before it gets colder.”

Teasing her, Murati picked up her own flatbread and made an exaggerated wink.\

Karuniya stuck out her tongue.

After their romantic dinner, the pair resumed their casual drinking. Karuniya inspected Murati’s general messiness. She had no room to talk. Having been over at her place before Murati knew intimately that she had a book pile just like her own, just with different contents.

However, rather than her evil genius, Karuniya had genuine curiosity.

She picked a book off the pile, on the development of Imperial fleet tactics.

“This is just like you.”

Karuniya smiled fondly at the book. “It’s like holding a tiny little piece of you.”

Opening up the pages, she flipped through various wordy descriptions and diagrams.

“Do they still operate like this? This book is a hundred years old.”

“It serves as a foundation.” Murati said.

“You really think about this stuff all the time.” Karuniya said. “I signed up at the academy because the military has a monopoly on science here in the Union. So, I guess I’m a soldier. I just do not have as much of a concentration in the operational art. Do you think that’s a weakness?”

“No, I mean, when we go to war you will perform science-y roles still.”

Murati had said that with such confidence that Karuniya stared at her in silence.

After a pause, she asked, “You think we’re going to war?”

“Eventually we must. I mean, you know, the contradictions and all that–”

“I read Mordecai too you know. But does that actually mean war?”

“It will eventually. The Empire in the long term, needs our resources against the Republic.”

Karuniya laid back against the pile of books, looking up at the ceiling.

“Wow. I guess I never thought about it like that. I feel like– well, like a liberal. I guess.”

“I forgive you.” Murati teased her. “Besides, you have all kinds of incredible knowledge I don’t have. I can’t predict currents worth a damn; I don’t get biomass concentration. I’d need you.”

Karuniya stood up from the floor. Her expression changed suddenly.

“Murati, listen to me. I made a decision today.”

Facing Murati, she extended a hand to her. Murati took it and stood with her.

“I want us to be together. I never want to lose you. Both of us have lost enough already.”

Her other hand she stretched to the wall.

Without looking, she input a command to Murati’s room computer. For people who got used to room computers, it was not hard to work the inputs while looking away, or even to type on the wall with a completely absent mind. The whole time she typed, Karuniya had the most intense lock on Murati’s eyes. Murati felt a sensation come up from her core, a growing desire.

As the lights dimmed, those emerald eyes grew fiery, passionate.

Her soft hand tightened its grip on Murati’s.

There was a notification. Karuniya had recorded herself in the room log.

“I’m staying the night. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I kinda missed sleeping over.”

She walked around Murati, hand in hand, never breaking eye contact. She sat on the bed.

Heaving a contented sigh, she tugged at the neck of her suit.

“Do you want to hold on to me? Even if you don’t– will you indulge me?” She asked.

A zipper pulled down; a button popped.

Karuniya beamed with anticipation. Her breasts were half-exposed.

Murati did not need any further hints and did not respond with her voice.

She took Karuniya by the shoulders and practically pounced on her.

Silent, confident, her body communicated the desire she had and her total acquiescence.

There was barely room on the bed for them to lay together — except with one on top.

Karuniya locked eyes with an expression that was ravishing in its confidence.

As the tallest of the two Murati gently tipped her head down to her.

Their lips joined. First the kisses were brief, between intermittent, warm gasps.

Laid down against the bed, Karuniya embraced Murati, and pushed herself up.

When their lips next met, they locked tight, savoring one another, breathless.

Murati’s fingers glided across Karuniya’s belly, relishing the soft contours of her skin, the tiny twitches of motion from her body as she reacted to the touch. Her fingers traced her belly, to her hip, and down to her thigh. Pressing between her legs, she reached under the wetsuit.

Her lips brushed past Karuniya’s cheek.

Ever so slightly, they spread for a gentle nip at the warm, pliable flesh of her earlobe.

“Oh! Murati–!”

Exploring further, Murati felt a rising pulse as she sucked on her lover’s neck.

Mumbling little cries escaped Karuniya in fits and starts. She closed her eyes and dug in her fingers. Her legs pressed against Murati and kicked, thighs rubbing, toes curling with pleasure.

“Murati, this–”

Her moaning grew louder, incoherent. Her cries shuddered with her whole body.

Briefly lifting her other hand, Murati tinkered with the wall panel as Karuniya tittered.

Synthesizer music filled the room. Karuniya bucked her hips, nearly jumping.

Both from pleasure and incredulous surprise.

“What the–! You’re ruining– hngh!”

Karuniya’s complaints were interrupted by a cute little moan as Murati found a sweet spot.

Those fingers which were occupied within Karuniya had taken no pause.

With the music blaring, they found a pleasant new rhythm.

“It’s your modesty that I’m protecting.” Murati said into her ears.

“Oh shut– ohh!”

In lieu of shutting up, Murati drew closer again to Karuniya.

Karuniya’s back arched, and she drew forward, seizing Murati and pulling her deeper.

All of the playful sounds escaping Karuniya’s lips were masked by the synths.

Only Murati could delight in them, as close as she was, tasting them in her breath.

“What a noisy girl.” She teased.

“That’s– you–”

Karuniya tugged at Murati’s dress shirt, undoing the buttons and slicing down the zipper to start undressing her. She squeezed the pliable material of the suit, gritting her teeth. Her whole body shuddered from Murati’s attentions. With effort, she pulled the suit and shirt off Murati’s shoulders and down against her arms, exposing her sweat-soaked, heaving chest.

Her hands went from the suit down to Murati’s breasts, digging her fingers into the skin.

Responding to her lover’s feverish grip on her chest, Murati pushed deeper and faster.

Karuniya tensed, her back arched. Suddenly overwhelmed in climax, she jumped forward.

Perhaps she had intended to embrace. Instead Murati knocked heads with her.

From the sound system, a much quieter, less intense track suddenly began to play.

“Fuck–” Karuniya began through gasping breaths. “–Goodbye, mood!”

Clinging together, near totally naked, they burst suddenly into laughter.

Murati was so taken in with Karuniya. She was positively glowing. She was so beautiful.

“I love you, Karu.” Murati said. “I love you so much. Let’s stay just like this.”

She squeezed her lover tightly. For a moment they held one another, neither moving from the spot. Everything felt light and warm and fun. Comforting. They laughed a little more together.

Karuniya recovered her breath. Suddenly, she pulled down Murati’s pants.

“I love you too, Murati. But listen it’s neither fair nor hot if only I have fun.”

Her fingers sent a thrill, longing and anticipation cascading across Murati’s entire body.

“I’m having fun.” She replied, gently holding on to Karuniya’s waist.

“Yeah, yeah; enough of the strong, reserved service top stuff, just come here.”

From the nightstand, Karuniya coyly withdrew a pair of foil packets.

One was full of powder. She tipped the contents into Murati’s mouth to dissolve quickly.

A second packet contained a condom.

Karuniya teasingly reached between Murati’s legs and laid a hand there. First to slide the condom down Murati’s shaft; then just to squeeze. Between her grip and the medicine, Murati felt a powerful rush of blood. It was impossible to maintain her strong, reserved persona then.

Stroking faster, Karuniya brought her other arm around Murati’s neck. She kissed her, briefly — then pushed her down onto the bed, her hands supporting her weight on Murati’s chest.

Her lover rising and falling over her, with the music slow and the lights dimming, their eyes locked together with growing intensity even as their bodies quaked with pleasure–

Murati almost felt as if time had stopped. As if she was in a sublime dream.

Karuniya’s weight and warmth on her body did make Murati shout.

Both of them shouted.

Heads swimming, heartbeats pulsing from one to the other as if one flesh. Diving deep beneath the surface of each other’s bodies, touching everything, tasting everything, holding back nothing. Holding hands adrift in the currents of their pleasure, the two of them lost the time.

They were taken by a raw desperation. Sex was nothing new, but that night was different.

Between the first kiss and the last orgasm, the world changed. They felt it in on their skin.


Previous ~ Next

“V”: The Loss Of Innocence

This chapter contains violence and death.


45th of the Aster’s Gloom

Socialist Dominances of Solstice — Southern Dbagbo

Guns sounded from the treeline, and flashes pierced the gloom cast by the wood.

From the edge of the forest sailed dozens of shells that soared over the open fields and crashed all along the defensive line. Huddled against the earthworks, infantry of the 3rd Rhino Rifle Division cringed back as columns of earth and shattered wood and splintered stone went up into the air in front of their faces. They hid farther back in their trenches, the defenses stacked three deep, each several dozen meters long in an arrowhead shape.

Several minutes and seemingly a hundred shells later, the tanks began to advance from the forest. M4 Sentinel medium tanks led the charge, over two dozen of them, followed by small concentrations of lighter M5 Rangers and a scant few M3 Hunter assault guns with their distinctive hull-mounted cannons. They rolled over the broad green prairie like a storm of steel, rushing the defenses at full steam. Machine guns blared from the front hulls of the M4s and M5s, fired by the assistant drivers, and every few seconds one or more or the tanks fired a cannon volley, putting shells closer and closer into the interior trenches. Creeping and creeping, the tanks and their ordnance broke the defenders.

Unable to suffer the advance of the enemy, the men in the trenches scrambled out of their positions. As they ran the machine guns never ceased firing, and many were cut down where they stood. Anti-tank guns lay abandoned behind the trenches, having never attempted to fire a shot — the old short-barreled 45mm gun was too ineffective beyond 500 meters to matter in this engagement. Well before the first tracks hit the trench walls, the defenses were deserted, and there lay corpses everywhere, hidden beneath the yellow and red flowers and the dew-licked green grasses that stretched behind the trench line.

A kilometer removed from this carnage, the second defensive line began to break from the sights captured in their binoculars and scopes. Men and women dropped their rifles and tore their uniforms and fled into the woods and hills. Without their commanding officer around to shout at them or shoot them discipline was breaking. Aside from being a kilometer farther than the first line, the second line was not much different. Three columns of trenches, each quite long and deep, fortified with wooden logs and sandbags and rocks and whatever could be sourced in a pinch. Dilapidated old anti-tank guns provided meager support for the defense. Once more, not a shot was fired by them.

Several hundred meters away from this scene, Cadao Chakma did not even attempt to rally the defenders of the second line. Doing such a thing would have compromised her plan, wasted her time, irreparably damaged the winning solution that she had drafted.

As much as she desired to save the infantry, doing so was not her job, for she was not an officer, and in fact should not even have been a combatant. These were desperate times, for a chief warrant officer to be fighting out her own plans. From a wooded hill halfway between the lines and offset farther south, cleverly concealed with netting and fake bush, she watched the lines break and the tanks begin to cross the flower field between the two sets of earthworks. It was on this soft ground that she desired her enemy, and she waited.

It was painful to watch the infantry struggle so much, but she had found the winning solution. Cadao was a solver of problems and she had solved this problem in this way. She hated herself for it, and she felt her heart hurt, but this was the only way, she knew.

All she could do was watch and to pray that her solution was truly the winning one.

“On my signal, all guns will fire until ammunition is exhausted, or the enemy retreats.”

In response, every crew started to load explosive shells and to stack replacements.

There was no need for detailed instructions. Her crews were not trained enough to perform any complicated fire orders. Everything they were going to shoot was pre-sited and pre-calculated. All they had to do was load the “150’s” as they called them, and pull to shoot.

Cadao raised her binoculars to her eyes and followed the tanks on their journey to the second defensive line, which was growing more barren of troops by the passing second.

It happened quickly; a plume of smoke rose suddenly somewhere within the tank formations, burning under a few flowers, its origin point invisible amid the moving mass of armor. One tank, an inconsequential M5 Ranger, stalled. Around it, every other tank continued a dauntless advance. Another tank stopped. Its front sank into the ground. And a third, a valuable M4 this time, stopped abruptly, its hatch thrown open by fire.

One by one the tanks started to stall. Some hit pre-dug pits, others drove too close to the ponds and mud puddles caused by the Dbagdo rain and hidden under the prairie flora, and became mired. Still more struck mines, causing them to de-track. Roughly a quarter of the fifty or sixty tanks in motion became trapped, and caused problems for the bulk of the formation that followed behind them. They slowed and turned in place and started to inch around the stalled tanks, trying to negotiate the obstacle presented by their trapped comrades as well as avoiding the traps that immobilized them in the first place.

As the ranks of the panzer battalion became disorganized, Cadao raised her fist to signal.

Her own treeline lit up as brilliantly as the opposing treeline had before.

Dozens of 152mm shells hurtled out from the wooded hill and directly into the prairie.

Where they struck the earth, great geysers of mud and upturned flowers and chewed-up turf went flying into the air. After the first few volleys the artillery crews scored their first grazes on moving and immobilized tanks. Detonations within a meter or two of a tank caused the tracks of the medium tanks to scatter in every direction, and the sides to collapse inward from the explosive pressure. Light tanks failed to survive even the lightest grazes, and any shell that struck anywhere near them left hundreds of shrapnel holes in their thin armor, and set the engines ablaze, and caused hatches to collapse inward.

There were few direct hits, but each was remarkably brutal. An M4, stricken directly in the neck of its turret, was beheaded, and gunner, loader and commander were sent flying in pieces along with their gun and equipment, leaving behind a hull akin to a squashed can. M5 Lights practically disintegrated when struck, their side walls and half the turrets and chunks of the engine compartment disappearing entirely, leaving behind gaping wounds that billowed thick black smoke and tongues of red fire and no sign of survivors within.

Nobody was counting the volleys, nobody was counting the kills. Cadao watched in silence as barrage after barrage went out. On the wooded hill the crews did nothing but load and shoot as fast as possible, collectively launching hundreds of shells for every minute passed. Maybe a dozen minutes and a thousand shells later the supply was utterly cooked off, hundreds of crates emptied and discarded behind her, and the beautiful prairie was reduced to a cratered hellscape, not a meter of grass or a single flower left amid the sea of craters, amid the chewed-up ground and dozens of burning, mutilated metal coffins.

Not a single tank would make it to the second defensive line. All of the lead formation was crippled or destroyed; Cadao took a moment to finally count, and found 24 tanks of various types destroyed. She spotted at least thirty more tanks, most in states of injury, others perfectly intact, all turning and speeding back over the first trench and into the forest.

She sighed deeply. Despite the loss of her C.O., the cowardice and ill preparedness of the infantry, and the inexperience of her own artillery, she had somehow turned back an overwhelming assault. She had perhaps bought the rear echelon of Battlegroup Rhino a day or two worth of respite to reorganize the line and plug the gap here. Whether they could manage to do so was another matter. Dbagbo was slowly but surely falling.

After sighing, letting out all the bad air, she smiled, not for herself, but for the others.

“Good job! Abandon the guns and let us run east to the HQ. If we are lucky, we may be able to return at night and hitch these guns back with some trucks or horses. Move out!”

Cadao was no leader, she thought. She was just someone who liked to come up with solutions, almost like a hobby, at first. But now everyone seemed to defer to her, and to give her the opportunity to solve the problems she saw. And so without question, without the honor of marking their barrels or even celebrating this victory, the artillery crews abandoned their guns, taking only food and water, and followed her out to the field.

Seeing the state of her troops, Cadao wondered whether any amount of planning could turn around the battered wills of her people — and her own flagging hope as well.

Watching the remnants of the infantry flee, she thought that perhaps her people were too gentle now for this war. Perhaps they could not cope anymore with carnage, after peace.


47th of the Aster’s Gloom

Socialist Dominances of Solstice — Eastern Dbagbo

After being relieved of duty for abandoning her artillery post, and being confined to camp in the far rear echelon, Cadao thought she would at least have some peace and privacy and time for herself in a state of “tent arrest.” However, one odd morning, the military police practically fled from around her tent, and were soon replaced by one surprising guest.

“Chief Warrant Officer Cadao Chakma, your presence is requested at the motor pool.”

Cadao was startled by the messenger suddenly barging into her tent. She was quite a mess; jotting down imaginary mobilization plans for the nation on a little notebook, her honey-brown skin was slick with sweat, and she was dressed in little more than an immodest tanktop and short pants. Her hair was disheveled. She had zipped up her tent, to prevent just such an intrusion, but the intruder had simply ripped it open to deliver the missive.

“Don’t just barge in!”

She threw her standard issue booklet of socialist wisdom at the messenger’s face, and found the stoic-faced most unconcerned by the attack. After being struck between the eyes, hardly even flinching, the messenger backed away, and waited outside instead. Judging by her behavior, she must have been with the KVW. Cadao blinked, and scrambled to dress herself, finding pieces of her uniform here and there, tying her hair into a ponytail, and gathering up her notes and proposals into a satchel to take with her.

Once ready, she stepped outside the tent, and nervously saluted the messenger.

“No hard feelings.” responded the messenger.

Cadao sighed. At least she was being let out of her tent now.

The messenger led her from her prison tent, which was large and cozy and strung up under a decorative tree planted just off the Gulguru train station platform, and onto the platform itself, and past several rows of track to a train that was recently arrived amid the hustle and bustle of the unannounced but practically unavoidable evacuation from Dbagbo.

Cadao certainly had no knowledge of its presence prior to seeing it there, but then again, she had little special knowledge of who came and went since her punishment. The train was armored, and heavily armed, but it dragged behind itself one car that was red and gilded and fancifully decorated, the kind of car that once upon a time brought holiday-makers on a tour through the wonders of Ayvarta. It was to this car that she was led.

Inside the train car, there was practically a tea party set up. On a table with a frilly cloth and rose-pattern embroidery, lay a set of a porcelain tea cups and plates. There were cakes, halva, and what smelled like fresh coffee, and black tea, and funky yak’s milk. Sugary syrup and honey were plentiful. Behind this table, a woman poured herself a cup, and with a hand gesture invited Cadao to sit down and partake of the sweet little spread.

Behind Cadao, the messenger left the car, and walked around the side of the train.

“Hujambo! I am Commissar-General Halani Kuracha. Please sit!”

She gestured once more for Cadao to sit, and so, Cadao sat.

When she heard the word ‘Commissar’ Cadao always thought of a taciturn older man, but before her there was a young, slender woman, brown-skinned, black-haired, with gentle features. Her hair was arranged in a cutesy, charmingly messy pair of twin tails. Her most striking feature was her eyes, each a different color behind a pair of round spectacles. As she busied herself stirring honey into a cup of coffee and yak’s milk, Cadao stared.

“I am stricken by your expression; you have lovely eyes, C.W.O.” Kuracha said.

Cadao, alarmed, sat up straighter, feeling a jolt along her back.

“I suppose so! They’re my mother’s eyes.” She said nervously.

Kuracha tapped her spoon on her cup, dripping off coffee from it.

She pointed the instrument at Cadao with a foxy grin on her face.

“Such a beautiful combination of features. If I could hazard a guess, Kitanese?”

Cadao averted her eyes momentarily, rubbing one hand on the opposite forearm.

“Um, well, I consider myself– just Ayvartan.” Cadao replied, suddenly self-conscious.

“Oh, I know. But you understand where I’m coming from, right? Certainly your blood runs many colors, it must have, to have assembled such a pleasant tapestry of features.”

Cadao blinked and shivered. Was she being flirted with? Was this flirting?

Kuracha had certainly developed an almost lascivious grin. It could be flirting.

Still, Cadao did not have to indulge it, if it was. “My mother was Kitanese. I’m Ayvartan.”

She said this in a voice that was low and reserved, and Kuracha took notice.

“Ah, comrade, you needn’t continue to assert such things. I do not come at this from a position of prejudice. I myself come from the stock of a north solstice desert tribe, the Budii. My people were barbarian raiders in antiquity. Now they farm along the Marduk.”

She waved her hands as if to blow away the anxiety in the air.

“There a lot of those tribes, aren’t there?” Cadao said, trying to make conversation.

She had never seen a tribeswoman quite like Kuracha. But then again there were few Kitanese that looked quite like Cadao did. Circumstances easily overcame one’s blood.

“Hundreds. Some are still out there, living their lives the ancient way.” Kuracha said.

“I see.”

“It’s a harsh life. I prefer the gentle glow of civilization.” Kuracha replied.

Cadao would not ask whether she thought the use of the word civilization implied her people’s ways to be savagery or barbarism still. She was not good at conversations or interrogations and she was starting to buckle under Kuracha’s boisterous presence. Whatever Kuracha’s ideas on cultures and ethnicities, it did not matter right then.

“Um, for what reason was I summoned, Commissar.” Cadao asked.

“Punctual! I like that.” Kuracha said, pointing an index finger at her like a gun.

Cadao started to sweat again. Was this how people flirted? She just did not know!

Kuracha looked her in the eyes, and her voice took on a less casual tone. “I was dispatched here to quickly retrieve you; your presence is wanted in Solstice, as part of a potential new military high command, likely to be approved soon by the Council and the KVW.”

“My presence?” Cadao blinked. “Military High Command?” Her mind started to spiral away, and her heart rushed. She found it hard to process anything. “How? What?”

“Cadao Chakma. You submitted a thesis to officer school for a potential mobilization plan in case of a southern invasion, four years ago.” Kuracha calmly explained, taking a sip of her coffee between sentences. “Your proposal was rejected and you were barred entry. It was completely politically motivated — you arrived, unfortunately, in time for demilitarization to enter the lexicon. But Solstice recognizes your worth now.”

Her worth. She felt her heart swell and her eyes drew wide open.

It was as if a bright light had exploded in the darkened recesses of her mind.

Something warm and satisfying and powerful welled up within her.

They had read her plans, seen the work of her imagination.

And they thought she was right enough to support. She felt herself glowing.

“All of that is true,” Cadao began, her speech excited, quick, “but that plan was for a potential war against a resurgent Mamlakha and Cissea, not against the Nocht Federation! To draft an effective mobilization plan I would need new data, both on us and on them.”

Kuracha grinned. “Excitable now, are we?”

Cadao caught herself, and drew back into her own shell once more.

Kuracha laughed. “You can have anything you want.”

She gestured behind herself and clapped her hands.

Behind her a door opened, and the next car over had one its rear door pulled open too.

Inside Cadao saw a veritable library.

“Are those–?”

“Copies of records from the Solstice archive.”

Cadao was speechless. It was wall to wall in that massive train car.

“I should get to work.” She said, still stunned by this turn of events.

Kuracha clapped her hands cheerfully. “You should.”


55th of the Aster’s Gloom

Socialist Dominances of Solstice — Solstice City, South Gate

Council had fallen bloodlessly, and Daksha Kansal was elevated to Premier.

After a short confrontation, Cadao managed to hold her own against the Premier well enough to receive her post, and she quickly set about to work. Her people, her gentle, peace-loving Ayvartan people, her farmers, her factory workers; she had, as was her custom, identified their problem, and come up with a solution. It was a dire solution.

Under Kansal, Cadao Chakma was now the civilian head of the armed forces. Battle plans were not her responsibility; as she sat, in a small restaurant just off Solstice’s south gate, her head swam with production numbers, potential efficiencies, procurements, R&D, and other engineering and logistical topics. The Wall outside dwarfed everything around it ten times over, and the gate, too, was massive, and very visible even inside the restaurant, even in an aisle seat. Despite this, she paid it little attention. She had become accustomed to the wall and no longer marveled at it. It was big. There were bigger edifices in the world.

Her people, this war, and the structure of communism.

Those were far bigger than the Walls.

She had turned over these problems and her own solutions in her head, over and over.

Always she attacked her own answers. She had to be completely certain.

There was too much now riding on her decisions.

She thought she would be ready for her new position. But it was one thing to solve small problems. From the heights she had attained, she saw a world an infinitude larger than before, and she was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem before her.

And she was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the solutions.

Everything hung in the balance.

Not only flesh and blood, but now the soul, too.

“Hujambo, here’s your lentils.”

“Thank you.”

A gentle serving girl with frizzy hair beneath a scarf laid down a bowl of lentils and a spread of flatbreads, and accompaniments like mint yogurt and mango-chili puree. Cadao poured the mango-chili mix into the lentil soup and mixed it up. She did this almost absentmindedly, while looking over a thick folder of documents she had prepared.

“Um, excuse me. You’re with the army, right?”

At her side, the service girl looked at her with meek eyes.

Cadao was in uniform and clearly looking at military-stamped documents.

But she was gentle; she was a part of a gentle people and she was gentle herself.

“Indeed, I am.” She said. She smiled. “Is there anything I can do for you, comrade?”

“Yes. Um. I know this is silly but. Have you heard or served with a lad my age, name of Kambaru Chafulu? He,” she paused for a moment, “He means a lot to me, and I–”

“I’m afraid I haven’t.” Cadao replied.

“Thank you. I am sorry to trouble to you.”

There were tears in the girl’s eyes as she bowed down, and turned swiftly away.

A soft and soft-hearted girl, victim of this war.

There would be more if her answers were not the correct ones.

Cadao sighed deeply.

She returned to work, reading over the same lines, doing the math in her head.

Over and over and over, attacking every line from every angle.

There was a war in her head, and it was this war, and it was its own.

Should those two meet, there would be great success.

And if she could not force them together, reality would crush her gentle people.

“Hujambo.”

It was a deeper voice this time. Cadao looked up.

Appearing at the side of the table was Premier Daksha Kansal. Tall, serious in expression, almost regal, with mixed black and grey hair in a big bun, dark skin and eyes, and a face that was only mildly weathered by age and suffering. She looked mature, but perhaps not entirely her own age. Her uniform was unchanged since becoming Premier. She wore the KVW black, red and gold, without visible honors. Her demeanor, attitude, the way she held her head high and her gaze hard, made it obvious that she was a person of authority.

She was a vibrant character who gave off a fiery aura.

Cadao, at first, buckled completely in her presence. Now, she felt more uncomfortable with her own thoughts than with anything Daksha Kansal could say or do.

“Have a seat, comrade Premier.” Cadao said.

Kansal nodded, and sat opposite her.

Soon, the girl appeared again, her eyes and cheeks clearly marked with dried tears.

“What will you have, comrade?” She asked.

“Hello, Yanna.” Kansal said.

She waved gently. Opposite her, the girl stared for a moment and then gasped.

“You’re the one who helped get me to a doctor, weren’t you?” Yanna said.

Cadao looked between Daksha and the girl with a quizzical expression.

“I only made a few phone calls.” Kansal said.

Yanna bowed deeply.

“I apologize ma’am. My brother should not have asked such a thing of you.”

“He was a child concerned for his family. We should all be so caring toward each other.”

“Thank you ma’am.”

“Don’t thank me. Thank the doctor for your speedy recovery. I will have what Cadao had.”

Yanna bowed again, and skipped and hopped away to the kitchen, giggling.

How quickly the whims of her people turned! Cadao thought, they were truly soft souls.

It hurt her heart, how kind everyone was.

“So, talk to me about this plan of yours.” Kansal said.

“That was why you chose this restaurant?” Cadao asked, smiling.

“No, I just like the food. Tell me about your plan, Cadao.”

Cadao sighed, losing her energy instantly. She had thought it over and over again.

No matter how many times she played out the moves in the chessboard of her mind, no matter what data she read or what facts she tried to plug into the formula for a different result, all she could come up with was the dire series of orders written in the terrible little folder she had laid on the table. She spread it open, and pushed it toward the Premier.

She had sealed the fate of Ayvarta with that move, she thought.

For better or for worse. She didn’t know. Perhaps both. She couldn’t know!

That was the solution and she was committing to it even though it hurt.

That was her custom.

“Premier, to accompany the mobilization plan of troops, it is absolutely necessary we mobilize the civilian sector as well, to the fullest capacity. Right now, we can easily raise 500,000 troops to defend Solstice by the Hazel’s Frost, and one million by early next year. But they will all be equipped with the subpar old weapons of the demilitarization regime.”

“So this is a procurement plan?” Kansal said.

“No. It is something bigger.”

“An ambitious procurement plan?”

“It is a change in our very way of life.”

Kansal raised an eyebrow.

“All I’m seeing in this document are R&D profiles of weapons I already know about, and a lot of mathematics that it is too early, and that I am too hungry, to parse. Please explain.”

Cadao nodded. She took in a deep breath and prepared to deliver the dire news.

“That project is called War Plan ‘V’; it is the fifth War Plan ever drafted by the Socialist Dominances of Solstice, and coincidentally, that five can easily stand for Victory. To achieve victory, I have created a plan that assumes the unconquered half of Ayvarta, with Solstice and its five remaining Dominances of Chunar, Govam, Ayanta, Jomba and Karnata, will operate at a hundred percent of its capacity. Everyone who can work, will work. Every factory, every input, very asset, will produce, for the war. Just for the war.”

Kansal blinked. Whether or not she understood the implications immediately, was unclear. Yanna came by with her food, and set it down on the table, and for a moment there were pleasantries exchanged that interrupted the discussion. Kansal took a few bites, drank some cold, spiced milk, and then turned her gaze back to Cadao again.

“Just for the war?”

“Just for the war.”

“You realize you are in a communist country?”

“To each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”

“Right. You know that, so–”

“Right now, we have a great need of things for a war, ma’am.”

Cadao was straining to continue this discussion. It weighed so heavily on her.

She like a villain; truly, she must have been. She must have been the villain.

Kansal seemed a touch irritated by everything.

“We are already producing at a high capacity. And industry from the south is being evacuated to Chunar and will be running again in a few months.” Kansal said.

Cadao sighed. “Ma’am, if I told you I could turn a toy factory into a gun factory what would you say? Would you really say that the toy factory producing toys, is being efficient here?”

Kansal narrowed her eyes. “I’d wonder what your opinion of our children is.”

It hurt to hear that, truly. It hurt to hear it said in that way. It really cast Cadao as a villain.

She took a deep breath and prepared to lean into villainhood fully.

Cadao shook her head. “If I turn every toy factory into a gun factory in just Solstice, I can equip a Division with Rifles and Grenades every week, and with enough ammunition to fight for a month, at the cost of a few unhappy kids who can learn to play pretend.”

Kansal hesitated to speak again. That was the kind of math that she truly understood.

“What else are you thinking?” Kansal asked. “What else is in War Plan V?”

Her heart was buckling, and her speech started to stir a bit. Cadao spoke quickly.

“Textile factories can make uniforms for infantry, bodysuits for tankers, camouflage nets, ammunition sacks, straps of various kinds that we need; tractor factories can make tanks, including the Hobgoblin. Automobile clubs can be pressed into patriotic service in making and repairing combat craft, including Aircraft like the Garuda II, which we sorely need. Women and men and children can construct earthworks and man air defenses. We could double the Solstice Air Defense Network, and have round the clock gun shifts, in a week.”

“And when the first teenage girl you allowed behind a gun is blown up by a bomber?”

Cadao almost wanted to weep hearing that. Her composure was starting to shake, but she held herself together as best as she could, shaking, and a little weeping, and yet firm.

“We’ll be secure in the knowledge that we have reserves.” Cadao replied.

She hated herself so much; she hated herself for having said that. Hated!

Even Kansal seemed shocked by Cadao’s response.

There was no more holding it back. Cadao was starting to break.

War Plan “V” was the solution and she had to have it approved.

“Ma’am, I understand what I am saying and proposing. The Socialist Dominances of Solstice was founded and built upon the promise that the state serves and protects its people and takes care of their needs first. To fully embroil them in this war, to use them in this way as a resource, to totalize this war into their everyday lives, is to break the great Ayvartan peace that we were enjoying, to break that gentleness we so valued. But ma’am, the state needs the people’s help. We cannot fight the Federation’s forces alone.”

Cadao broke out into tears over her own words. She felt she was becoming a monster.

But there was a problem, and she had the solution. She had the horrible solution and she could not let it go because that was her nature. She had won over this problem now and she had to declare it. No matter what was destroyed in the process. This was the only way.

“Right now we are producing 300 Hobgoblin tanks a month. I can make 1000 in a week, if I can have men and women currently painting sports cars for a dwindling export market, or building surplus wheelchairs, or putting together children’s bicycles; if I can have those people building tanks every day, on a fair schedule, for fair compensation. I can do that.”

“So,” Cadao’s voice started to crack. “So, ma’am, we may cause harm to Ayvarta. But we may save it too. Do you desire to save Ayvarta, even if it is not the exact same after?”

It was perhaps the polar opposite of demilitarization. Everyone had prayed and hoped for a society that could be at peace with the world and free of war. Cadao was proposing to make a society that was steeped in war, and functioned only to prosecute it at its most total, most consuming and brutal, in order to survive. What kind of Ayvarta could survive such a thing, she did not know. That was not the problem right now. She had the solution for the problem that they had. 1000 Hobgoblins a month in two months; after that, tens of thousands if the southern industry could come online in Chunar fast enough. Similar numbers of Garudas and Wyverns in the skies. Qote class aircraft carriers and Megalodon submarines. Millions of Salamander rockets. Untold billions of rifles and grenades.

And, ultimately, an army of several million, whole populations living to fight.

And even greater still a civilian army of billions who lived to support that fight.

Cadao’s horrible, inescapable, haunting vision of total war for the survival of Ayvarta.

“I will think about it.” Kansal said.

Her expression betrayed nothing of what she could be thinking.

She stood, saluted Cadao, and left the scene, stone-faced.

With her superior gone, Cadao finally allowed herself to break down completely.

She screamed, and thrashed, and cried, and nobody around her understood why.

People came up to her and tried to console her. Yanna told her everything would be fine.

All of those gentle souls, who might, in a year, or in two years, see that gentleness gone.

It made Cadao weep and scream all the more. She did not deserve that kindness.


1st of the Hazel’s Frost

Socialist Dominances of Solstice — Solstice City, SIVIRA

Cadao Chakma appeared before Daksha Kansal one cold evening in Solstice.

She had spent the past few days on forced leave, to recuperate from “an illness.”

It was cold and getting colder, so she had some kind of excuse. Shifting weather.

That the desert was starting to become so unbearably cold at night meant winter was here.

Weather wasn’t it however; weather did not bother her.

Not the physical weather. It was more the philosophical weather bothering her.

There was a storm in her heart, pouring rain in her mind.

To think, Kansal had put so much trust in her, and she was already buckling.

What a joke; for a monster, she was very week.

“Cadao,”

She did not sit. She was not invited to sit, nor would she.

Cadao knew why she was there.

Under her arms, she had brought it. That hated thing, that fateful thing.

Kansal stretched out a hand and beckoned.

“Give it to me. I have decided to disseminate this.” She said.

Cadao nodded grimly. Her eyes almost welled up in tears again.

“Are you afraid, Cadao?”

“Yes.”

Cadao was deathly afraid. Of what she was doing, of the role she would play in it.

“Can you continue your work even so?”

“I can. I have medications.”

Kansal nodded. She pushed back her chair.

“Cadao, I believe that the goodness of the Ayvartan people can survive anything. It blossomed even under the brutality of the Empire. We are not perverting it.”

Kansal stood, and she approached Cadao, in time for the young officer to break down.

Her knees grew weak, and she sank into Kansal’s breast.

Kansal took her in her arms and gave her a strong, reassuring embrace.

“We are saving it, Cadao, you are saving it. That you’re crying right now about all of this, despite being such a genius, with such a strong will to set this into motion. You are not excluded from the beauty and nobility of the Ayvartan people. You are the noblest of us.”

Cadao could hardly think anymore.

From under her arms, War Plan “V” spilled into the floor.

She cried and shouted terribly into Kansal’s chest.

This was an evil thing, it was not a good thing, not a communist thing.

It could not be anything but evil and she was doing it. She was the architect.

“Cadao, if it turns out that what we’re doing is evil and monstrous, I will be the monster. History will judge me, and never you. I will protect you. I promise.” Kansal said.

Cadao withdrew from Kansal and looked her in the eyes, shaking.

“Ma’am–”

Kansal smiled a motherly smile and looked her in the eyes too.

“I will be the monster. Never you.”

Moved by this display, Cadao cried once again, the loudest she ever had.


 

1st of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E.

War Plan “V” is approved. Beginning of War Communism and Ayvartan Total War.


<< APOCALYPSE 2030 >>

The One Who Will Die (35.1)


53rd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Shebelle Outskirts, 8th Panzer Division FOB

Schicksal grit her teeth and held her tongue long enough to watch the tanks leave the camp. She kept her eyes on one tank in particular, staring with a deathly glare. Once the unit had gone, she turned sharply around, brimming with adrenaline, and stomped from the edge of the camp into Dreschner’s tent. Staff ducked away like she was an incoming shell.

“General, how could you let him treat you like that in front of everyone!”

She went in shouting, but Schicksal quickly found that the General was not alone. At his side on the strategic table she found a man wearing a black bowler hat with his grey infantry uniform. There was a blue and white armband around his arm. He looked up from a document he was filling out briefly, and returned to it almost immediately.

“Settle down, Signals Officer.” Dreschner said, his tone apathetic.

Schicksal blinked. That man at the table was a Schwarzkopf policeman. They were part of the special investigative units in the fatherland. He was a gendarme, judging by his armband and uniform, but the black bowler hat set him quite apart. What was he doing?

“Is everything alright, miss?” He asked, still writing on the page.

“She’s fine. We’re all high-strung here.” Dreschner interceded.

“I understand.” the Schwarzkopf said, delicately writing a ß.

In the Gendarme’s presence, the last thing she wanted to do was cause a furor. Schicksal took a seat by the radios and waited for their business to conclude. Dreschner and the man spoke briefly among themselves, traded photographs and file folders, and once all the papers were filled, the gendarme gathered the materials into a file folder wrapped with a plastic tie. He tipped his hat to Schicksal, and vanished behind the tent flaps.

“General, who was that man after?” Schicksal asked. “Did someone–”

She stopped herself, recalling her own reason for coming here.

Of course; that gendarme must have been here for Reiniger.

Dreschner looked up from the table, over his own steepled fingers.

“You came to ask why I allowed Reiniger to go?” He said. He did not shift from his position, leaning into the table. “Well. Would you rather I beat him into the floor again in front of Captain Skoniec, and in front of Ms. Von Bletzen? Teach him with a fist?”

“No, but.” Schicksal paused and averted her eyes. “I don’t know.”

There was an oppressive, expanding gloom inside the war room tent. A lamp hanging overhead provided the only reliable light source, but its own shields dispersed the color of its flame, such that dire shadows covered half of everyone’s face and half of every surface. Outside the grey sky was darkening and the rhythm of the gently drizzling rain slowed down. Schicksal felt exhausted now that the flame of her anger was snuffed.

She had always felt trepidation around Reiniger. She tolerated him for the value that she thought other people saw in him. She looked at the tables of organization and knew that one less experienced lieutenant meant something to the mathematics that kept all of them alive in this war. So she filtered every thought of him through that. He had to stick around, and he had to get better. But now she was just left with the disgust of him.

Schicksal hated that she was in his presence and felt intimidated by him.

She started to wish that she could have delivered that fist to his nose and drawn blood.

She stood up from her seat and approached the table.

“Honestly,” Schicksal spoke up suddenly, “yes, punch him. Break his teeth. Throw him on the ground and step on him until he vomits his own tongue. I’m sick to death of him.”

“That’s no good.” Dreschner said. “Don’t let that gendarme hear about it.”

“Sorry.” Schicksal said. She felt embarrassed, as suddenly as she had felt angry.

“As long as it doesn’t become a habit. I’d hate to lose your level-headed personality.”

Schicksal felt a mix of shame and frustration, a cocktail that seemed to bubble hot in her chest. This must have been how Dreschner felt on the night of Kunze’s funeral. She wondered, had she been in this mood, in this position, back then, would she have beaten Reiniger? Would that have accomplished anything? What had level-headedness gotten her so far? Finally the cocktail seemed to reach her tongue, and she spoke virulently.

“He was a jackal. He thought he was stronger than all of us and he acted like we only existed because he allowed us to. I don’t want to have to put up with people like that.”

“We’re not putting up with it; that’s what the gentleman was for.” Dreschner said calmly.

Schicksal balled up her hands into fists. “That’s not enough! He needs it seared into his bones! You said it yourself, he doesn’t listen. He’s even come close to hitting me too!”

“It is already seared into his bones. That is the source of the problem.”

“I can’t believe you’re taking this tack now!”

“I agree. But one of us has to.” Dreschner replied.

Schicksal raised her hands to her reddening face.

Dreschner gently continued.

“But I also agreed with you, back then. When you said you thought I had what it takes to fix anything. This is part of that. At the end of the day if I punch Reiniger and accept him among my ranks I am condoning his behavior. That must stop.” Dreschner said.

Red mist started to lift from the world, and Schicksal took a deep breath.

“I got carried away.” She said.

“I can’t judge you for that.” replied the General.

“I feel so powerless.” Schicksal sighed. “Before Knyskna I only barely interacted with these people. You gave me more responsibilities and recognized me, General, and I felt like I had to live up to that, but I failed. And now I feel like I should have done more of, something– I don’t know! I don’t know. I should have done something to stop him.”

It reminded her too much of home.

Both her mother and her father, and her brothers, everything.

She always thought, if she had just taken one bottle away from one hand.

Then everything would have been settled. Everyone would have straightened out.

That was never how it worked out there.

But she thought that was the power Dreschner was giving her.

“I’m sorry sir. This is stupid.” She said.

Dreschner looked at her in the eyes.

“No matter your rank you will never have the power to correct anyone’s history. Neither your words nor your fists, or my fists, can change what a person is dead set on doing. I’m telling you this not because I’m a saint but because I’ve learned this the hard way. You can try, and you will try; you’ll try your damnedest. But you can’t let it consume you.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I’m the only one here to blame, for all of this. And I’m sorry enough.”

Her head was swimming a little. She wondered if it was still the alcohol or just exhaustion. She felt all the more ashamed for having drank the night before. It felt like such a weak thing to do, such a stupid thing to give into. Just like the rest of the Schicksals.

She grunted weakly. “So whether he succeeds or not, it’s a courts martial, huh.”

Dreschner straightened out in his seat. He gazed wearily at the flapping tent entrance.

He grunted too. “Solitary confinement or the lash. That’s what this hero has earned.”

Their words hung in the air for a moment.

“I don’t think he would have made it.” Schicksal said. Her brain was scattershot.

“Made what?” Dreschner asked.

She shook her head, tossing her hair around. She clutched her forehead.

“Kunze’s shot. That 2000 meter shot. When it counted. Reiniger wouldn’t have made it.”

Dreschner shook his head. He sighed deeply. “Kunze made that shot to save another tanker. Reiniger has never acknowledged this because he would never take a shot like that. Kunze had run his unit out into the open. He’d made a mistake. He was afraid he would lose his men and fail his mission. He fell back. Everyone retreated, but one crew stuck it out fighting out in front of the unit. He was bound to get killed until Kunze made that miracle shot.”

Schicksal blinked. That was a side of the story she didn’t know. “Who was in that tank?”

“Corporal Jorg Reiniger.” Dreschner said.


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DICKER MAX (34.1)

This scene contains violence and death.


47th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Dbagbo Dominance — Sandari River Crossing

“Shit! Shit! Is that an eighty-five? Messiah defend; they’re pulling up an eighty-five!”

The arriving Ayvartan gun attacked them much sooner than anyone thought.

Several hundred meters ahead a pillar of fire rose from the back of an M4 tank, its engine compartment bursting open. Fire belched out of its open hatches, and the closed top hatch slammed up and flew into the air. Rainfall turned the flames into a cloud of grey smoke that obscured the wreck. Everyone inside was still surely cooked dead.

All of its platoon mates scattered at the sight, M4 and M5 tanks veering behind trees and rocks and into bushes. The 8th Panzer Division’s breakout was instantly blunted.

“We’ve got an eighty-five! Eighty-five, it’s almost two klicks ahead, Messiah defend!”

Ayvartan Goblin tanks could hardly scratch an M4 tank except at close ranges; but the Ayvartans were far from defenseless against tanks. Their Anti-Aircraft 85mm gun could destroy an M4 tank from the front at practically any range — and much to the misfortune of Kampfgruppe R, the Ayvartans pushing against the Sandari had brought just such a weapon to bear upon their defensive lines. Soon as it was deployed, it scored a kill.

Reiniger scowled, his own tank camouflaged inside a bush just off of the river’s edge.

“Repeat distance! Accurately this time!” Reiniger shouted into his microphone.

A second 85mm shell flew in between two positions, past the camp, and struck a thick old tree ten meters behind Reiniger’s tank. Reiniger heard the dispersion of debris against the back of his turret armor when the explosives in the AP-HE shell went off.

“Gun’s 1.7 kilometers away exactly!” one of Reiniger’s observers replied on the radio.

Reiniger grit his teeth and squeezed his hands against the hand-holds on his cupola.

The 8th Panzer Division’s beachhead across the western Sandari was barely reinforced, largely because there was nothing to reinforce it with. He had the manpower but he did not have the sandbags. He had no construction materials, in fact, and he hadn’t been able to get so much as a measly anti-tank gun across the river. His defensive line was a hundred men in groups of five or ten huddling in disordered foxhole trenches. All the artillery they had to count on were tanks hiding in bushes and behind rocks and trees.

Third shell; it went right through a bush, hit and exploded, lighting the vegetation on fire.

Moments later a tank frantically backed out of the bush, a sizable dent in its glacis plate. Judging by the fact that it was backing away, it must not have been severely damaged. A hit by an 85mm gun either killed an M4 or it didn’t, there was rarely anything between.

On the radio the commander of the miracle tank hyperventilated violently.

“Holy shit. Holy shit, Lieutenant; premature detonation; it– holy shit–”

Reiniger pressed on his microphone in a rage. “Shut up and get back you moron!”

As fast as the reverse gear allowed, the M4 sought another hiding spot. Backing away from the burning bush, veering to avoid the gun tracking, it slid sideways behind a nearby boulder. Only the top of the turret cupola was visible over the rock. In that position the M4 could not shoot back, only hide from fire. Reiniger grit his teeth.

“Not there! God damn it! Find a position you can fight from!” He shouted.

His own tank shook suddenly; fire flashed through the glass slits on his cupola.

Debris fell over Reiniger’s M4 as a shell hit a few meters in front of the bush.

Reiniger heard dozens of tiny clanks against the front of his turret.

“Mortars! We’ve got one-twenties deploying from the trucks!”

“Enemy riflemen moving up! Looks like a whole company, sir!”

All of Reiniger’s observers seemed to have bad news to report.

Reiniger dropped from his cupola, a small niche at the top of the turret where he could sit and look out of vision slits, as well as have quick access to the hatch. He took the gunner’s position, pushed the loader out of the way and looked down the gun sight. Unlike his vision slits, the gun sight had magnification. He spied the enemy position.

Kampfgruppe R’s portion of the Sandari battle meant holding on to a small strip of riverside land directly adjacent to a hidden pontoon bridge in a portion of the river about 3 meters deep and ten meters wide. Except for the edges of the river, delineated on both sides by meter-tall bumps of terrain, much of the ground was flat sandry brown intermittently covered in grass, sparse on vegetation, and dotted with boulders.

Several hundred meters ahead, Ayvartan trucks had arrived on one of the dirt roads from Shebelle. One of the trucks was a novel conversion — an anti-aircraft truck carrying an 85mm gun on its bed, mounted on a rotating plate. All of the other dozen trucks were loaded with men and women. Mortars deployed, the Ayvartans charged with rifles and bayonets, grouped in thick ranks as the shells began to fall over the Nochtish camp.

Norgler machine guns retaliated against the charging Ayvartans at first, claiming several victims at the start of the charge. Behind the infantry attack, rose the first mortar shells.

A dozen blasts pounded the foxholes, while 85mm shells ripped over them.

The Panzergrenadiers bowed their heads into their holes and the Ayvartans ran free.

Reiniger put the 85mm firmly in his cross-hairs. He held a breath; it felt like eternity.

Kunze had made this shot before. That rat bastard; he’d hit it from a world away.

That was what had made him. Other than that shot he had nothing going for him.

Reiniger could make this shot. He could make it right. Kunze had nothing but luck.

From behind him his nervous loader slid a shell into position.

“Firing HE!” Reiniger shouted, striking the gun’s footpad trigger.

His 50mm shell sailed out of the end of the cannon, hurtled toward the truck, and sailed on. Overflying the right side of the truck bed, it vanished from sight. Almost immediately the 85mm gun turned on its base. Smoke danced from the thick bushes around him; and the bright flash of his gun had given him away completely to the enemy.

At once Reiniger ordered his driver to pull back.

With a roar of the engine the M4 retreated sideways from the bush.

Turning a lever, Reiniger rotated the turret to match the tank’s movements.

He could make this shot; Kunze had made it, god damn it. He could make it too!

“Reload HE!”

Beside him the loader stuck a fresh round into the breech.

There was a flash far across the way.

Reiniger smashed his face on the gun sight as the tank violently rattled.

A piece of metal from the side armor snapped; like a swarm of flying razors, screws and bits of flaked metal blew inward and up from the lower left. Reiniger heard a scream and a gurgling noise, and he felt something bite into his leg. Disoriented from hitting his head on the scope, Reiniger sat, doubled over, feeling nauseous and short of breath.

He turned his head and found his loader lying dead behind him. He had fallen from his seat and came to lie face down in front of the ammo rack. The M4 Sentinel’s turret was cramped enough, and the turret floor still intact enough, that his body had nowhere to fall. It was as if someone had just shoved him off his seat on the turret’s left side.

Most of the spall that had come flying had become embedded in him.

There were holes in the turret floor, and a deformity on the side of the turret ring.

His armor had been partially cratered from an angled 85mm impact.

The enemy shell didn’t explode as it should have — it was a dud.

Reiniger tried the turret lever. He pulled on it, heard a click and a cry.

It was stuck.

He shook his head and called out on his radio as if nothing had transpired.

“I want shells on that fucking eighty-five! Everyone shoot it now! I don’t care where–”

His engine cut.

He stopped breathing. He heard it sputter and turn quiet; felt the seat shake when the tank came to a sudden stop, its injured side still fully exposed to the enemy, stranded in the middle of the camp. Looking through his sight, his gun had been frozen just a few degrees off of a possible shot at the enemy. Meanwhile the enemy gun turned, slowly, cruelly. It was going to pick him off. None of his men seemed to heed his orders.

Reiniger crouched; through the screen on the lower turret ring he saw his driver slumped over the brake lever, a bright red splotch across the small of his back.

Breathing heavily again, he rose back to his gun and spied through the sights.

The 85mm gun settled, elevated slightly. He saw movement around it.

“All guns on the eighty-five! Right fucking now!” He shouted.

Nobody took a shot.

Reiniger’s heart seemed to stop. There was no sound in his tank.

From the sky came a loud buzzing.

Something dropped onto the Ayvartan truck and engulfed it in a column of flames.

Automatic fire flew from all sides as his tanks emerged, coaxial guns blazing.

Charging Ayvartans started dropping mid-run. Mortar fire abated completely.

Reiniger stood on the turret floor, climbed onto the flip-down seat for the Commander and stood up and out of his top hatch. Overhead a dozen Archer planes cut through sky, soaring past his sector. They were dropping bombs on targets of opportunity and swooping down with their machine guns at unseen lines of infantry several kilometers away from him. He saw smoke rising in the far-away distance, and the figures of the planes turning slowly into indistinct dots against the grey, pouring heavens overhead.

It finally happened: he got to see a plane take out the enemy. Front row seats too.

He lowered his gaze from the heavens, and found a hundred corpses stretched across the suddenly quiet kilometer stretch before him. Most were Ayvartans, killed in their charge. But many were his own men, blow up in their foxholes by vicious mortar fire.

On the road, a cloud of thick smoke covered the ruined Ayvartan truck and its artillery.

To think that everything could turn so dramatically in that one fiery instant.

It was too abrupt; it felt unreal, like a jerky old movie that was missing reels.

All Reiniger felt, watching this mess unfold, was frustration.

He picked his helmet off his head and threw it on the turret floor below him.

Climbing out his turret, he spotted the closest tank, charged at it, climbed again.

He threw open the hatch and seized the commander by his jacket.

“Why the fuck did you defy my orders soldier? Why was nobody shooting!”

His face was covered in sweat and rain, contorted with his rage, his eyes twitching.

Cowering, the tank commander replied, “We received no orders sir!”

Reiniger let him go — the man dropped clumsily off his seat and onto the turret floor.

That last 85mm impact must have damaged the radio system too.

He felt momentarily foolish.

“At ease.” He said half-heartedly. He dropped down from the tank and walked away.

Everything always had to be so difficult. Nothing could go as planned for him.

Nothing could be simple and correct, no matter how hard he tried.

Everything always spiraled out of his control. No matter how much he shouted, how much he thrashed and clawed and bit and fought; it always ended up going sideways. Cissea went sideways, Knyskna went sideways. Everything he tried ended in failure where others somehow found success. What was missing from him; what did they have?

Reiniger ambled around the Sandari camp as if in a stupor. He made it to one of the blasted foxholes and sat down quietly at the edge, staring down the flat horizon.

Schicksal would be mad at him for not reporting soon. Not that it mattered.

There was nothing important to report, because he had not made the shot.

Back then, back in Cissea, Kunze had made that shot. Everyone knew he had.

When you made a shot like that, you reported immediately. That was how you got ahead. There was no reason to report a kill you didn’t make. Let the airmen report that.

Kunze reported a shot, and his loader reported with him, and his tank commander backed him up. That was how he got ahead. He had something to report. Something went right.

Not because he was good; not because he had an advantage. He just somehow did it.

And it made no sense. It had never made sense. Reiniger wanted to scream for it.

Why was it Kunze, that time? Both times? Why had he been praised, given the spotlight, and elevated to lieutenant so quickly, so easily, as if by the hand of god himself; and then why had he been smashed to pieces by that very hand so shortly thereafter? Now they buried Kunze, now they remembered him. They couldn’t praise nor berate him anymore.

Reiniger had struggled, had thrashed his way from a car-driving private, a nobody, to tank loader, to tank gunner, to tank commander. To Lieutenant — to one of General Dreschner’s right-hand men. And before that: from the streets of Mutz, the cold, cracked concrete of the youth hostel, to the hard-top of the training camp as soon as he was of age, to the warm dirt, bright grass and the open sky of a Cissea at war with itself.

From the child so unwanted that he was outright abandoned at the steps; to the hated, hopeless teenager who fought with everyone on the street, because fuck them that’s why; to the boot camp fuckup, shouted at in the ears by the sergeant over and over.

Every step of the way he fought. Every step of the way he fell. His face tasted the mud and pavement, sometimes so intimately that they tasted of his blood. That was his life.

Reiniger made himself in the mud and the gore. He couldn’t ever seem to escape it.

Kunze had leaped clean over the whole process with one good shot.

He wasn’t even a reliable shot like Noel! He had never replicated the feat!

He had no fundamentals. Just one measly lucky shot, a few photo opportunities.

Why did the world pick that man over him?

How? How did that skittish slab of butter manage to rise so high?

And how did he fall so hard? How did he break upon the stone without standing again?

It confounded him; it vexed him. Because even after he vanished from the face of Aer, Reiniger still could not beat him. He would never exorcise the phantom of what Kunze was, what he represented. He still couldn’t overcome the clawing, the struggle, the bestial melee of his life. Nothing ever went right. He was not Dreschner or Noel; or Kunze.

He was the mud and the gore and the screaming and the fury. It was all he had.

There would never be a hand that would pick him up. He always had to fight for it.

It became so common now that Reiniger didn’t wait to fight. He just fought always.

He wasn’t irreverent. He was at war, with everyone, with himself. For everything.


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