The Legions of Hell — Generalplan Suden

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

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

Solstice Dominance — Postill Square

A bonfire raged in the massive common square outside of the main barracks. Revolutionary Guard and KVW soldiers stood around it, staring into it, quiet, seemingly pensive. They threw badges, patches, identifications into the flames. Their old lives as part of the government were over. Men and women looked on at their comrades before taking their turns. There were similar expressions across every face, difficult to read, regardless of whether KVW or Revolutionary Guard. Both the black-uniformed and red-and-gold uniformed troops looked the same, and had similar training. They had similar opinions about the events in the city. Warden Kansal had given them orders, and they would follow them. It was impossible that a disloyal thought could cross their minds. Those who were used to the eccentricities of KVW-conditioned people, though, could see signs of anxiety. Pacing, lack of sleep and loss of appetite, reluctant eye contact. They were humans still, after all. They feared for the future.

Everyone resisting the Civil Council traveled to the far north of the city, assembling in barracks around the grand plaza dedicated to the first Revolutionary Guards who had fought so bravely to free Solstice from the Empire during the Ayvartan Civil War, the Revolution. Trucks were still arriving at the old ceremonial base, carrying police and Revolutionary Guards from across the vast capital city. An army growing to almost 200,000 troops built up, unit by unit, with the ten divisions of the Revolutionary Guards making up the bulk, along with several divisions of police rearmed as KVW soldiers, and the 3rd KVW Mechanized Division.

It was an army that could have conquered the city it had sworn to protect. Instead, under orders from Warden Kansal, they abdicated their positions, essentially going on strike. They would not abide the suspicious allegiances of the Civil Council — but they also did not mobilize to end it. They could not mobilize south to fight Nocht even if they wanted to — their rail capacity was at its limits, and any other mode of transportation would not be enough.

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

The Warden knew that the city administration was reeling from this mass betrayal. The Civil Council had always loved the police and guards, so courteous and loyal, perfect in their demeanor and professional in their duties. The Civil Council loved obedience and order and they let their guard down around anyone after they obeyed enough orders and followed enough regulations. But who established them? Who trained them? These things could not be removed by simply changing jurisdictions and making new uniforms. The Revolutionary Guard and Police accepted severance from the KVW because Kansal allowed it to happen. She allowed them to become part of the Civil Council, she allowed herself to become separated from her followers this way, because they were still loyal to her throughout.

Warden Kansal’s trump card was always poorly hidden. It was disbelief that kept suspicion at bay. She counted on a lack of understanding, first and foremost. She was always blunt. She hid only because people opted not to see her. Always those eyes had overlooked her for one reason or another. Perhaps because she was a woman; perhaps because in the past she had been injured, altering the functioning of her body. Perhaps because she seemed foolish.

How could this one woman control hundreds of thousands of people? How could she, with the snap of a finger, organize them to turn their backs on everything they committed themselves to for years without an inkling of visible rebellion? Short of magic, it was simply not possible. Across the last five years everyone was certain that the Police was the Police and the Revolutionary Guard the Revolutionary Guard. The KVW had been broken and shrunk.

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

Now the Warden stared out at the consequences of her decision. From the second floor of the barracks, her temporary new home, she watched as the guardians of the city gathered in this strip of land, to live away from their police stations, from their depots, from everything still nominally owned by the Civil Council. An army, essentially, on strike; and a city visibly bereft of their stewardship. Crime was always low, and grew lower the more people discovered that socialism was apparently here to stay, and that it was largely taking care of them. Would people revert to barbarity without them? Certainly not. But they would see the movement. They would understand that things were changing, and perhaps for the worse. Perhaps, now freed from hunger, they would take notice of the politics around them.

There would be anxiety and tension; the violence of the world upon the human mind. Violence could bring change.

Daksha Kansal felt that violence in her own mind, and it made it hard to understand her own thoughts. Other people could see a continuity of their experiences, and they could analyze the torrent of information that led them to action. Daksha’s mind was hurt, and when she most needed to look into herself, she most felt the wound, and retreated from the pain. So she acted, and she spoke, brashly, without much forethought. She moved like the chaos she had caused. There was always change in her, something storming in her own mind, and she would move with it and storm in the world, bound up in passion, whether loving or hateful.

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

She spoke. Individual words came quickly, and frantically they joined to create meaning.

Behind her, Admiral Kremina Qote looked up from a long table that had become her new desk. Despite how quickly Kremina spoke and how little she thought about what she would say, her words always had meaning for Kremina. She gave her a subdued smile, looking wistfully at the floor.

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

“Indeed. Was this trajectory inevitable? Or, had we been stronger, could we have built something more lasting?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daksha’s mind was like a cipher but Kremina was closer to earth. Her feelings were tangible. Kremina felt ashamed of herself for a moment, but she also felt strongly that this violence was necessary. When she was younger she thought she saw virtue in compromise, but tension now cut through her restraint and made her optimism appear naive. She hated the ridiculous government that had needled its way to influence over Ayvarta. She hated the passivity she felt in interacting with them on their level. Were they not revolutionaries? Why not murder them all? Why not run right into council, and excise all of those irrelevant fools from the world. What was the worth of an election where people chose between hacks who had simply swapped into a new political aesthetic to remain relevant and imperious?

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

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

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

“That might be a little harsh.” Daksha said. She was treading lightly. It felt very fake and unlike her.

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

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

“What would you have us do? What will it take then for us to take action?” Kremina demanded.

“I want the Council to collapse and make way.” Daksha said. “I don’t want to be the new tyrant. I want the upheavals to end.”

“You don’t have to be a tyrant to depose a broken government!” Kremina said.

She could tell Daksha was not listening to her in full. The Warden had a tired, dreaming look in her eyes.

“I am putting my hopes on Nakar. I’m not religious, yet I foolishly desire a sign from her. She showed us a sign before, didn’t she? As a child, we saw in her the power to destroy something that seemed eternal, and to erect something better in its place. The Empire was vast, and it claimed to be god-forged, eternal. Madiha Nakar came to us out of squalor and mud, and she brought that Empire to ruin. Can we not have that sign again in our time?”

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

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

Kremina gazed upon her lover with pain. Both of them buckled under the weight of this crisis.

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

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

“When the time comes it will be my decision. We tried our best for all these years to work with them, and to try to rationally reconcile all of our positions for the good of people. We have housed them and fed them, but have we truly freed them? Or are they simply waiting in the interim between one set of tyrants and another burgeoning set? That is my fear, Daksha, when I speak to these councilors and when I engage their politics in good faith. I can’t anymore.”

“Let us wait for a while. Worse comes to worse, I promise I will be history’s monster. Not you.”

Her attitude changed easily when others swore themselves to extremes. Daksha was still protecting her, still trying to be the first to die, still making herself the monster, the face of the evil the world saw in them. Kremina saw her then as she had seen her over 25 years ago, when they made their secret pact. She was a low-ranked naval officer, slim and untouched by the world. Daksha was tall and strong, only lightly weathered by old age, her skin a warm brown like baked leather, her hair short and black as the night. One of her arms had been broken horribly and now it moved with difficulty. One of her legs was stiff from injuries. She was awkward in pure motion, but with her own grace, taken in aggregate. Strong, passionate; that was the Daksha she knew. But she saw herself always as the monster.

“Can we wait? Kremina?”

She reached out her hand. Kremina took it. Their fingers entwined. Irrationally, they would wait.

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

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

24th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 DCE

Nocht Federation Republic of Rhinea — Citadel Nocht

Citadel Nocht was alive with the ringing of phones and the crackling of noisy radios. Under a constant barrage of snow the massive spiraling black building that was the nerve center of the Federation housed thousands of workers, hundreds of guards; its offices fielded millions of questions and gave billions of answers through kilometers upon kilometers of telephone and telegraph wire. These were the neurons that carried impulse for the movements of Nocht’s 48 state organs and its untold amounts of limbs, the most important of which, at the present included the Schwarzkopf secret police, the Brown Shirt police, the Vereinigte Heer, the Luftlotte and Bundesmarine. At the crown of this man-made encephalon was the office of the Federation President, elected by the voters of each state. Largely, this organ existed to digest a world’s worth of information and within the day both inform this singular man, and transform his reactions into a world’s worth of policies, answers, and, lately, retributions.

This was the machine of the Libertaire technocrats, the temple of their industry, the proving ground of their science.

Atop this machine, the exceptional man seethed; President Lehner had received a world’s worth of news.

A wave of terrorist attacks in Lubon had slowed the tottering nation of elven faeries even further than expected; in Yu-Kitan resistance from the Jade Throne and the communist guerillas in the jungles of the interior had forced the Hanwan Shogun to commit more troops and reduce his own commitment to the larger war. While attacks on the major ports of northern Ayvarta were still planned, supporting landings in other areas would be cancelled. In Nocht itself, Lehner’s foolish and misguided voters broke out in riots over a tightening on banks and groceries to prevent malcontents from hoarding resources the nation required. His brown shirts and black heads had gone swiftly to work, but the minor episodes across the Republics of the Federation left a sour taste in his mouth. He thought his people better educated than this; he would have to take new and special efforts to instill upon them proper and patriotic values. He needed his population capable of supporting a war.

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

But Lehner did not pride himself on complacency. He found problem areas, and he seethed at them too.

To his office he summoned General Aldrecht Braun, chief of the Oberkommando Des Heeres. He was the kind of man that Lehner hated. Facing him was like peering at a museum piece. He was thin as a stick and straight as one, his skin graying, pitted, covered in cracks. He had an old world flair to him, a chiseled countenance with a dominating mustache that seemed to link to his sideburns, and a dozen medals on his black coat none of which Lehner had given him. Through the double doors he strode proudly into the office, chin up, maintaining eye contact; he trod casually upon the blue bars, red block and white stars of the Nochtish flag, over the eagle carrying the 48 arrows of the Federation. All of the Presidents peered down at him from their portraits. He did not sit before Lehner’s desk.

Always, he stood, and always, he stared, keeping Lehner’s eyes. Miserable old codger; Lehner could’ve spat at him.

But it would not do to give anyone that satisfaction. It would have looked bad in the papers.

“Mr. President, it is always an honor to be in your presence. I assume you have received current information.”

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

President Lehner always spoke in a rapid-fire tone, as though his thoughts would run away from him if he did not hurry.

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

“Yeah, I know! Funny that! I told him to ground it after he gave me this ridiculous number of planes he lost to try to help your boys break into a city that, by the way, they still don’t seem to have broken into at all. Two hundred sorties two days ago, a hundred yesterday, none today? What?”

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

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

General Braun was direct. “We have not lost 500 planes. We lost 388, with 42 critically damaged, 70 lightly damaged–“

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

General Braun winced as the pieces flew from the desk. Several fell in front of his shoes.

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

“Well, yeah, because you flew less sorties. Otherwise you’d have pissed away even more of my planes.”

“With all due respect sir, I do not command the air troops: Kulbert might be able to tell you more.”

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

General Braun did not flinch. He remained standing. President Lehner’s own frenetic pace worked against him, and he felt an almost physical pain at the thought of remaining on the subject of the damaged planes. Quickly they turned to discussing the ground forces. Braun displayed an intimate knowledge of the city of Bada Aso, the final bastion of the communist resistance in Adjar. The city had not yet been seriously challenged from the ground, and the forces retreating pell-mell from the rest of the region had gathered there to make their stand; or, Lehner assumed, they had been merely told not to run any further on the pain of death, and thus the pathetic flight of the communist forces by coincidence had happened to end there. It’s what he would have done. Braun boasted about his advantages.

“We know the city and surrounding regions like the backs of our hands now; we have resources from the communist side.”

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

“A few officers from the Adjar command, and a few captured soldiers. Apparently the invasion caused them to reconsider their allegiances. It’s not surprising to me. Adjar was one of the most rebellious Dominances of the old Ayvartan Empire. When the Empire fell, Adjar moved quickly to secede into its own country, same with Cissea and Mamlakha. But Adjar didn’t get away with it: the communists tightened the screws on them. They would win eventually, but Adjar resisted enough that they settled things with a truce instead and formed a collaborative government, making certain concessions to the rebellious territories. There have been seeds of anti-communist rebellion in Adjar ever since, though the Ayvartan KVW has swiftly rooted out and crushed many. But the sentiment never really left, I feel.”

“Love a good history lesson, but cut to the chase here. What have ‘our people’ done for us yet, huh?”

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

“Battlegroup Ox are our opponents, right? Led by that ore smuggler, Gowon. A pretty farcical enemy if you ask me.”

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

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

“He was commissioned by your predecessor sir. He practically delivered Cissea to us in a few weeks.”

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

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

“Oh, no, that’d set us back right now. Just. Ugh. Ignore I said anything. This was a stupid angle.”

“If you say so, Mr. President.”

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

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

25th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 DCE

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

While gray clouds still loomed overhead, the Kalu region and Bada Aso received none of the expected rain.

Under the muggy gloom, a new army advanced across the wet grassland and over the muddy old roads.

From the southern approach the city was eerily quiet. The Landsers could hear every mechanical struggle and hiccup and neigh of their long convoy of vehicles and horses. An entire Battalion rode to battle that day, comprised of over 800 men in vehicles and mounts, but nobody met them through their long drive. Even the wind was quiet, picking up little except foul smells of day-old smothered fires. Gradually they left the countryside behind and pushed into the urbanization of Bada Aso. Dirt roads turned black with sturdy pavement; clusters of buildings grew thicker around them, though few stood taller than burnt out foundation. The 6th Grenadier Division’s 2nd Battalion crept through the ruins of the outer neighborhoods of Bada Aso, finding several kilometers worth of ghost town. It seemed like three out of every four buildings had been smashed by bombs, and the debris spilled across the streets. Near the city limits the mounds and stretches of debris that dotted the landscape were largely surmountable, either short enough to cross or near a clean road by which they could be circumvented. With every block bypassed the ruins raised new challenges. In the thicker urbanization there were larger buildings and tighter crossings. The 6th Grenadiers found themselves considerably slowed down by their mounts and vehicles.

Soon the Landsers stopped entirely. They found themselves faced with a wall of rubble from a massive, five-story tenement collapse.

Captain Aschekind gave the dismount order. At the head of the convoy, a single Squire half-track unloaded its compliment of ten men, who quickly surveyed the wall. Aschekind was among them. Other Rifle squads mounted on horses and a few on trucks dismounted and assembled in turn. In all there were over 40 of these squads, accounting for more than half the men in the battalion. Making up the rest were support groups of Norgler machine gunners, a small cadre of snipers, and far behind them at the rear of the march, communications officers and the logistics train. Food, ammunition, medical; over a kilometer behind for safety. They would start putting down wires for field telephone, and coordinate the arrival of reinforcements and the deployment of higher-level assets: 2nd Battalion lacked any kind of personal anti-tank guns or heavy artillery support, all of it waiting to be released piecemeal by the Divisional command that largely still lagged outside of the city. Horse-drawn carts would have to pull many of these weapons into the city, and would also be responsible for towing them between reserve zones and combat areas.

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

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

Or at least that had been the theory; given the poor terrain conditions it seemed much more complicated than that.

As his fellow Landsers dismounted, checked their weapons and awaited orders to march, Kern faced the rubble in front of him and the debris-choked expanse of the city around him, and even in the midst of hundreds of his fellow men, he felt remarkably small. He knew none of the other men. He hardly spoke to them. He felt his burning in his gut when he thought of speaking to anybody. What would he tell them? Riveting stories from the corn farms of Oberon?

He put up a tough front, because everyone else seemed to do the same. There was idle chatter from men who had fought alongside one another before and had some familiarity. This was Kern’s first combat action. He had been assigned to 2nd Battalion just a few days ago from the reserve.

What was he doing in Ayvarta? He had thought the world smaller than it was. It was too big for a farmer’s boy.

He shouldn’t have run from home.

Before he knew it, Captain Aschekind called for a forward Company, over 200 men; and Kern found himself moving, mimicking the eager men around him. They joined their Captain at the edge of the rubble, and began to climb the high mound. Aschekind was a monument of a man, broad-shouldered, thick-armed, imposing in his officer’s coat. His fists seemed more frightful than his pistol. An angry red scar crossed his left cheekbone. His expression was grim and focused, betraying little of what he might have thought of the men around him. Kern felt helpless around him, and instinctually feared him even more than the prospect of the enemy. The Captain hardly seemed to climb; instead he took determined steps up the slippery rubble, crunching with his feet on the dusty cement, brick, wood and jagged rebar debris.

Kern was just an ordinary man; a boy, some would even say, barely twenty years. Blonde and blue-eyed and clean-faced, athletic, or so he once thought. Perhaps the sort of man that a man like Aschekind once was, before war turned them into moving stone. He climbed with his hands and his feet, as though crawling up the mound. Dust and small rocks fell in the wake of faster climbers and momentarily dazed him. He felt the sharp rock and bits of metal scrape him through his gray uniform. His kit felt heavier than ever. He had a grenade, he had his rifle, he had various accouterments. He had extra ammunition for his squad’s light machine gun. He was exhausted a dozen hand-holds up the rubble, perhaps nine or ten meters from the floor. Kern struggled to catch his breath. Groaning men wedged up past him.

He cast eyes around himself at his fellow climbers. He could hardly tell who was even in his own squad.

Atop the mound of rubble they had a commanding view of the surrounding area. It was hotter and drier up there than on the road. There was a breath-taking view from over the rubble, but he wouldn’t get to cherish it for long. Aschekind tersely ordered the men to drop to their stomachs and crawl so they would not be spotted atop the mound. Forward observers moved front, surveying with binoculars the streets ahead. From their position they relayed that they could see the first Ayvartan defensive line, compromising rings and pits and low walls of sandbag barriers around heavy machine guns and a couple of light mortars. Observers reported that the communists had based their defense in two echelons of forty or fifty troops, including, regrettably, both men and women, and these cadres stood each across from the other on a tight, three-road intersection like a side-ways T. Overturned buildings, mounds of rubble and shattered streets that would block the full brunt of the enemy’s attack covered half of the way to the enemy’s defenses at the intersection. Then just as starkly the ruins stopped for hundreds of meters.

For significant length of the way to the intersection the assault would have to be carried out over pristine terrain.

Kern listened with growing trepidation. Captain Aschekind, however, was unmoved by this obstacle.

“Establish the 8 cm mortars here. Rifle squads will advance. We may yet surprise them.” Aschekind said.

Kern and his fellow Landsers crawled along the top of the mound and slid carefully down the other end to the ground. Immediately they took cover in whatever rubble they could find. Aschekind was right: the Ayvartans had not yet spotted them. Methodically the rifle squads advanced toward the line. Squad leaders moved ahead with their designated scout partners, followed by the Gewehrsgruppe, consisting of the Company’s Norgler machine gunners. Everyone moved from cover to cover. And at first there was a king’s ransom of potential cover: a collapsed piece of the road, drenched in water from broken pipes; the overturned facade of a building, creating a mound behind which a man was invisible; husks of blown-out vehicles; and open ruins and the spaces between and around buildings.

Squad by squad the Landsers moved forward, each treading the expert paths of the men before them.

Kern found himself pressed into the middle of the column near the Gewehrsgruppe, the machine gun group responsible for volume fire to cover the Company’s advance. All of them had heavy packs, and walked in twos. Up ahead the “headquarters” consisting of various leading officers made the first moves to new cover, and directed everyone; when to run, when to duck, when individual squads should tighten or loosen formation. Behind his place in the line followed riflemen with no special designation. It was a textbook march, and they carried it out with professional character. Over two-hundred men, moving almost in secret. It was perfect.

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

Tactical movement carried the Company far into the rubble, but cover grew sparser as they went. About a hundred meters from the collapsed tenement, they had only waist-high cover to count on, and just a few meters from that they would have nothing. Captain Aschekind moved to the center of the men. Beneath the notice of the Ayvartans they huddled in the edge of the rubble, scouting out the defensive line. Aschekind ordered for word to be passed around the Company that squad leaders and rifle groups (but not the machine gun groups) would cross the open terrain as fast as possible. They could not count on any cover until they reached the sandbags: closing to assaulting distance was their only chance of success. Gun groups would remain behind in support. Through whispers passed around their hiding places, man to man, the entire forward company was soon appraised of the situation. Captain Aschekind ordered the assault to begin with a mortar attack on the defensive line.

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

Captain Aschekind raised his portable radio to his mouth.

“Ordnance, fire at will. Smoke across the line of advance, and high explosive on the enemy.”

Seconds after Aschekind’s command, Kern heard the chunk of mortar rounds dispelling the eerie silence in the city, flying from their tubes atop the tenement rubble. Moments later they crashed back to earth, throwing up smoke to cover the advance of the Landsers and crashing across the Ayvartan’s defensive line. 2nd Battalion’s first few shells on the enemy did little more than scatter sandbags and awaken the communists. Ayvartan machine gunners took their places and opened fire on the rubble and across the long, smooth street that led to their intersection. Bereft of cover, it was like a killing field. Only the smoke prevented a massacre.

“Forward company, charge!” Aschekind shouted. “Throw down their walls and plant your boots on their faces!”

From behind cover the Landsers rose and threw themselves headfirst into the fight. As one body the Company charged ahead from their hiding places and crossed immediately into the thickening smoke over the connecting road, tackling the open stretch as fast as possible to assault their objective. No longer was theirs the movement of a methodical force, advancing efficiently in a column expertly hidden from the enemy. It was a blunt stampede. Behind them, standing a few meters off the ground atop rubble, several squads worth of machine gunners fired continuously over and around the running Landsers, directing their fire across the smoke and trying to silence the flashing muzzles of the Ayvartan defenders. Each burst of allied gunfire bought precious seconds for the desperate riflemen to run. It was all they could do.

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

Into the smoke advanced this march of close to two hundred men. Kern seemed caged in the center of the charge, anxious from the thunderous noise of so many footsteps. Whistling mortar ordnance crashed intermittently in their ranks, pulverizing men. Sparse but deadly fire seemed to pick off soldiers like a finger from the heavens, indecisively falling, tapping a man in the shoulder, the legs, or the head, and taking off whatever was touched. Every few seconds a choppy stream of fire from an Ayvartan machine gun took two or three men in a line. Then the enemy paused momentarily, to reload their machine guns or hide from retaliatory fire from the Norgler gunners, but soon their bullets soared across the road once again, sweeping blindly through the smokescreen for men to kill.

Landsers in the charge fired their weapons in a desperate bid to open ground for the charge. Most riflemen stood little chance of hitting a target, but the Light Machine Gunners in each Squad, ducking near the edges of the road, could match the Ayvartan’s rate of fire for the briefest moments before having to take off running again to avoid a killing spray. Ahead of the march a few men blindly threw grenades far out in front of them as they could, but the explosions did little good. Mortar shells fell intermittently and inaccurately on the communists, proving at best a momentary inconvenience to one of the positions fiercely defending the road.

Everything they threw at the line was only a minimal distraction that bought the Landsers small chunks of time between deaths and deafening blasts. Every few seconds of Ayvartan stillness took the company closer to the objective ahead, but every few seconds of Ayvartan activity claimed lives.

Kern raised his rifle and threw himself forward. He coughed in the smoke and held his breath when he could. His head was spinning, and he took clumsy steps. He felt as though constantly falling, hurling headlong down the road. Around him men fell to their knees and unto their hands, cognizant of their deaths for mere seconds before uttering their final cries. Kern cowered from streams of machine gun fire and narrowly avoided mortar blasts. Fortune smiled upon him somehow; he pushed toward the edge of the cloud, and found a shadow behind the Ayvartan line that he could attack. Closing in on the enemy, he engaged. He raised his carbine and fired a shot while running, hitting nothing, working the bolt; he saw his target, the shadow, flinch in the distance, and he fired again to no avail.

Crying out, Kern pushed himself to the brink of physical pain and finally overtook the sandbag wall, leaping over and shoving a man from behind the tripod of an empty machine gun. Over a dozen landsers overcame the defenses and bore down on the enemy with him, throwing themselves over their mortars and rushing their machine guns. Kern thrust his rifle out in front of him, coming to blows with one of the defending communists. He swung the barrel of his rifle like a club in a frenzied melee, and around him it seemed every man was suddenly fighting with fists and elbows and knives rather than guns.

But there was no bayonet on the end of his rifle, and his opponent was stronger than he. Bare forearms blocked the feeble, clubbing blows of the landser, and quick hands grasped the weapon, punishing the boy’s repeated, pathetic flailing. With a titanic pull, the communist tore the firearm from Kern’s hands, and used it to push the landser back, throwing him against the sandbag wall as though he was weightless. He then turned the carbine around.

More men vaulted the low sandbag wall, and Captain Aschekind was one. He leaped over Kern and charged in with his bare hands. He threw himself against Kern’s opponent like a charging bull, quickly pulling down the stolen rifle with one mighty hand to avoid a fatal shot, and with another taking the man by the throat, choking and lifting him off the ground. Kern’s stolen carbine shot into the earth and spared his life. Aschekind squeezed the man’s windpipe and with a mighty heave he threw the man three whole meters away. Like stone the unconscious communist struck another man to the floor, and the two of them were stabbed dead by rushing landsers using their bayonets and knives. Kern stared helplessly at the bloody brawl. It seemed then that the human wave finally tore past the sandbag wall. With the communist’s machine guns and mortars tied up, the landsers rushed confidently ahead to threaten the intersection, stepping over the bodies of fallen friends and foes.

Aschekind did not immediately join them. He half-turned to the sandbag wall and he threw Kern’s carbine against the boy.

“Bayonets before bravery, Landser.” He said, his voice deep and grim. “Affix the point before your next charge.”

Hands shaking, Kern picked through his pockets for his bayonet, and snapped it into the lug before running ahead. He took cover inside one of the mortar rings. Enemy fire resumed around him from the second echelon of Ayvartan defenders at the intersection. Forces poised on each edge, the battle for the middle of the intersection was underway. Smoke cleared, and Kern could see several enemy squads with their men and women hidden behind post boxes and street lights, inside ruined buildings and even ducking behind fire hydrants. There were probably fifty or sixty riflemen and women opposite the attacking landsers.

One ominous building stood almost intact across the intersection, and Kern saw communists run in.

From the second floor automatic fire soon rained down on the assault group. Kern saw charging Nochtmen cut easily down. Mid-run, several of the leading men turned tail, threw themselves down or grabbed what defenses they could. Few got lucky; butchered bodies littered the ground ahead.

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

At this range, their own gun groups could not support them well, and their mortars were far too inaccurate. It was the worst situation imaginable for Kern. Riflemen in a static fight without a base of automatic fire, against entrenched enemies. His fellow Landsers hid as well as they could and fired back, directed by Aschekind’s shouting. Several men took shots at the machine gun, but its metal shield protected the gunner perfectly within the relatively narrow window. On the ground rifle shots deflected off cover on both sides. Kern loaded his own rifle and rose quickly from cover, taking a barely-aimed shot at the building. He hit the windowsill and hid again, working the bolt on his rifle. Whenever the Ayvartan machine gun fired it issued a continuous tapping noise that sent a chill down his spine.

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

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

His Captain seemed to have taken notice of his reticence in the face of the enemy, and scowled at him.

“Give me that.”

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

“Stay down,” the Captain warned. Kern ducked even lower in cover. Captain Aschekind waited for a momentary lull in the Ayvartan’s machine gun fire, and he rose half out of cover, looking through the metal sight now sticking out from the front of the gun. He pressed the trigger but it was not a rifle bullet that fired from the muzzle, but the old grenade. It soared in an arc and crashed through the second floor window of the building across the intersection. A fiery explosion ruptured the wooden floor, and the machine gunner and the machine gun came crashing down to the ground level. In an instant the communists had lost their fire support.

Without the machine gun the volume of Ayvartan fire slowed to little more than a few cracks from bolt-action battle rifles every couple of seconds, striking harmlessly against the dirt and into the sandbags. All around him Kern saw the Nochtish troops taking notice of the stark change in the level of ambient noise. The Grenadiers grew bolder. Those men huddling in cover rose out of it and fired for the first time in minutes; and those who had been fighting most fiercely before now redoubled their efforts, shooting and working their bolts with greater speed, and moving across to new cover. Squads developed a good rhythm of shooting men, covering for reloading landsers who would then return the favor. Men stepped from cover entirely and charged forward with their rifles out. They reached the center of the intersection, and threw grenades across. Many of them fell, wounded by close-range Ayvartan fire; but their throws blasted many communists out of hiding.

Kern heard the ghastly chopping of the Norglers behind him. Streams of automatic fire crossed the intersection.

All of the Gewehrsgruppe was moving up to support them. Now the situation was fully reversed in their favor.

Pushed back and with their heavy weapons depleted, the Ayvartans became disorderly, and as their numbers began to fall, many retreated further and further out of the intersection, until they had abandoned it entirely. Grenadiers crossed the street unopposed, taking to their knees and firing at the fleeing enemy until none could be seen. Both echelons of defense at the intersection had been ejected, and the 6th Grenadier’s 2nd Battalion claimed its first objective.

Once again the eerie silence fell over the city. Without the machine guns and mortars there seemed to be nothing.

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

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

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

Captain Aschekind did not turn or look at him to address him, and he kept walking coldly away.

Kern sighed. He was indeed still a farm boy; his presence had done nothing to sway the engagement.

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

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

Squads regrouped, but Kern saw quite a few people like himself, in disarray, standing apart from the carnage. A few men sat on the sides of the road and Kern didn’t know whether they had been wounded, or if they were just in shock. He figured that too was a kind of wound. Nobody counted them.

There were more people coming in. From the road that had cost them so much blood to claim, a column of new men marched calmly to the intersection. Some began to haul the bodies of the dead away, while others rushed to the wounded. A horse-drawn cart appeared from one of the connecting roads to the intersection, carrying ammunition, grenades, and towing a small anti-tank gun behind itself. The rest of 2nd Battalion moved up. They were a legion walking into Hell, unknowing of the horrors herein. Nobody seemed to cover their mouths in disgust, or flinch away from bodies.

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

Of course, Kern had seen it. And his own horror was imperceptible, mute and stunted. He heard a whistling inside his ear, becoming more pronounced from the transition from cacophony to silence. There was noise inside his head too, and he could not sort out his own thoughts quite yet.

Idly he crossed the intersection to stare at Captain Aschekind’s handiwork inside the old building.

Kern looked down at the machine gunner, lying beneath the fallen weapon and bleeding from a dozen shrapnel wounds. He thought that it was the body of a woman. He had heard tell that the Ayvartans pressed their own women to their cause, but he never believed he would see a woman die among soldiers as though she was a natural ally to the fighting men. He looked at her with silent fear. What kind of people were they? What kind of person had she been?

Back again unto the intersection, he left behind the building and the corpse. Nobody was counting the communist corpses.

Just off the intersection inside the husk of a concrete building a command post was being hastily assembled. From the horse-drawn cart three men carried out a heavy radio and set it under a hastily pitched tent. Laborers began to raise sandbags around it, while Aschekind ducked inside. Kern stood nearby.

He could hear the radio crackling. Captain Aschekind reported their victory in low, terse, grunted words.

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

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

Captain Aschekind appeared for a moment frustrated with the radio. He expressed no disdain verbally. Kern saw only a flicker of anger in his eyes, and found him stressing the radio handset’s plastic shell with his powerful grip. “Acknowledged, General Von Sturm.” He said.

“Very good, Aschekind.” Von Sturm said. “I knew I could count on you, the Butcher of Villalba.”

Kern thought he saw another brief convulsion on the Captain’s face, but perhaps he only imagined it.

Major General Von Sturm cut contact, and Captain Aschekind looked down the road ahead of them, past the intersection.

He thrust a radio into Kern’s hands. Kern was surprised; he did not think the Captain even knew he was there.

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

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

25th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 DCE

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

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

It was a frightful idea, and even more frightful how hollow she felt, that it could have taken root in her.

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

They could not spare the staff for it.

They could not spare a lot of things.

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

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

“I expected as such, but complete the phone call first, and then relay the information.” Madiha replied.

Parinita shrugged comically and pressed the handset against her head again. When she was done she put it down.

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

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

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

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

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

“It is too early to confirm losses, but do our commanders on the ground have any estimates?”

“Not a clue. The 1st Defensive Line corps was deliberately undermanned so it’s not like we had a lot to lose.”

“Yes.” Madiha felt a terrible stab of guilt. It was all going according to her bloody plans so far.

“Nocht appears to have committed three separate divisions, each of which has a regiment forward.”

“I expected a little more, but no matter. We will soon spring the trap. Everyone is aware of this?”

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

Madiha knew too well. She was staring down the elite of Nocht’s troops, and her own army was entirely crippled.

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

What Demilitarization entailed in practice was the curtailing of the size, prestige and ultimately, efficacy of the army. Many Generals in the Ayvartan army were dismissed; while most deserved a retirement due to their age and inability to adapt to rapid changes in technologies, very few were promoted to take their place. Those that remained were kept away from their troops, as advisers to the bureaucracy. Ranks above Captain thinned out horribly, and so lower officers were thrust with greater responsibilities, limited contact with superiors, and few opportunities for promotion. Standards were relaxed or forcibly lowered; organization was up to each individual Battlegroup. Formation sizes were wildly variable as long as the end result was an army 100,000 troops in each territory. Hundreds of thousands of reserve troops were dismissed and hundreds of thousands of capable troops were added to reserve. Overnight, the fabled “Ten Million Men” of the Ayvartan Empire evaporated.

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

Now she felt anger and helplessness, because she was part of the body that had been sickened and weakened.

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

While the KVW raised their own standards, and the Revolutionary Guard that protected Solstice was untouched, it mattered little.

It came from a time and place where they could not see an enemy attacking them; or perhaps, from a time when they did not want to see it.

Madiha was staring down an organized, professional army with a disastrous organization of her own. Many of her Captains were unaccounted for, heaping even more responsibilities on her Lieutenants. Parinita had told her that most of the Captains had sour relationships with Gowon and carried themselves fairly independently, conducting training on their own and traveling with their personal cadres where they pleased. Madiha figured the chaos of the invasion, their disdain for the territorial authority, combined with their lingering fear of the KVW’s inspections, must have caused them to lose their nerve and finally vanish from the ranks.

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

In the room with her yesterday there had been two Captains and a gaggle of Lieutenants.

She gave the briefing as best as she could. She conveyed the plan for the defensive operation, Hellfire.

From there, those few officers had the task of effectively controlling the entire army to carry out this plan.

Though Parinita and her staff had done their best to return order to the organization, there was only so much that could be done at this point to combat the idiosyncrasies of Battlegroup Ox’s deployment.  Now the strategy was done; real-time tactics would have to carry the day from here on. Madiha stood from her desk, took up the phone and dialed a number. She waited through the tones and relayed the necessary orders. “Once the 1st Defensive Line fully dissolves, and the 2nd Defensive Line comes under threat, you are to wait until the enemy is fully committed against the line before launching the counterattack. Ogre tanks are authorized to join then.”

Madiha put down the phone, and sat behind her desk again. She felt helpless. Everything felt out of her hands now. Whether the counterattack on Matumaini succeeded or failed; whether the city survived; whether her own life proved to be of any worth. None of it was within her power to affect.

“Spirits guide us all.” Parinita said, looking out the window of the office. They could see none of the fighting. Only ruins.

* * *

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

The Birth of the Solstice War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Library And The Ladybird (VII)

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

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

She came to a conclusion she found fairly acceptable.

“It’s not my fault!” She shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really?” She said.

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

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

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

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

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

“About what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ladybird blinked with confusion. What the heck was Kino?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ladybird nodded. She cupped her hands around her mouth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ladybird threw the desecrated tome over her shoulder and grinned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ladybird stretched out her hand. “Deal!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s Not Forget Senator Gainesley

Senator Gainesley played Russian Roulette every morning and always lost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His face sank into his hands.

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

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

The aide nodded and retreated carefully out the door.

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

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

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

“Gainesley.” Frumious said simply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gainesley stood bolt upright and slammed the table himself.

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

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

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

His jaw dropped and his hands shook.

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

Senator Gainesley’s face sank into his hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How did that happen?”

“I let him have his oil loophole.”

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

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

“Yes, that one.”

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

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

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

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