The World Ablaze – Generalplan Suden

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This chapter contains some strong language and mildly disturbing religious imagery.

 

8th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Nocht Federation Republic of Tauta – Thurin City

10 Days Before Generalplan Suden Zero Hour

It had been the same window, for months now. But across the glass Bercik saw an entirely different world. Geography, climate, nothing had changed but that the mindset in which it existed, the permanence that buttressed it, was fading.

The Aster’s Gloom swept across Nocht with cold, heavy rain in the south and storms of ice in the north. For all of its sixty days the inhabitants could expect harsh weather and overflowing drainage. Thurin, located on the lower coast, received a terrifying downpour to mark the passing of the seasons. Under relentless wind and rain people crowded the street still, a rainbow of umbrellas and capes, headed to collect wages and keep the machinery of urban life moving. Around the edges of their streets the ditches filled into miniature rivers. Awnings drained a steady trickle over the walking commuters. Those few private cars that cruised the streets did so with their hoods up over the passengers, blowing little clouds of smoke that dispersed quickly with the force of the rain. Everyone had their heads down and they walked briskly and in step, undaunted by the storm.

For those inside a building, it seemed a daunting world beyond the glass.

Thurin was a large but flat city, thick with people but bereft of monuments. It was low lying, unremarkable to the untrained eye, lacking the glass facades and the distinctive architecture that made Citadel Nocht the jewel of the Northern world. Thurin had power in Tauta, but it was far from a work of art, with its buildings and streets composed of muted gray concrete, its architecture boxy, perfunctory, artificial. Overhead the sky was dark with a mix of storm clouds and smog, which would linger like a fog whenever the factories overworked.

Bercik found himself deeply unsettled as he peered out over his city. Before crossing the threshold into adulthood he thought his city was vibrant and alive. Gradually those warm feelings left him. He did not know what to think now.

From the window on his apartment he had a view of a street, filled with people, their heads down, soaking wet. What did they think of the city? What did they know? Where did they intend to be at the end of the Gloom? For Bercik, he thought he had his life figured out, but then the Dahlia’s Fall gave way. Sixty days ago he had a future and now he envisioned something very different, something macabre. All of those people, could they see as he did? They were not equipped to do so. And as he watched them, he felt all the more desperate.

“Scheldt! Scheldt! Wake up!”

Accompanying the soft, high voice was a rhythmic thumping on the side wall.

“It’s fine Kirsten! I’m awake.” Bercik replied.

“Oh! That’s great. Have a wonderful day! Take care!”

Bercik chuckled. He had asked Kirsten to be his alarm clock, in case he wasn’t up. That boy was always awake. He delivered newspapers, so he was up at ungodly hours, and didn’t seem to ever sleep, playing his violin and singing all the time.

Bercik left the side of his window, and crawled along his bed. He sat on the edge of it, and stretched his legs. Bercik could almost touch the walls with the tips of his feet. It made him think that he was renting a cage, a spot in a pet shop alongside excitable little dogs like Kirsten. Barely enough room for his legs, intermittent electricity, and a bed that clung from the side of the wall with chains. Amenities included only a sink with running water, a mirror, a window, a light bulb, and a chest for his few earthly possessions. He was already wearing his one good suit. It had a more legitimate claim to being his skin now than the pinkish-pearl sheet over his flesh. Despite covering a dozen stories a month, he could still only swing 50 copper marks for a box that was scarcely three meters around him. Such a condition could only continue, in the state he was in.

But he had a meeting to attend. Money could wait. He worked toward something greater now. Bercik stood in front of his mirror. He adjusted his tie, patted down the wrinkles on his suit as best as he could. Then he squatted down to the floor. Carefully he crawled under his sink and pulled a loose board off the wall, and from a hollow space behind the pipe he gently extracted a large folded envelope, thick with documents. He quickly hid the envelope in his satchel, along with several papers held together by a gray paper clip in a corner.

His heart pounded relentlessly as he donned a black hat and walked out the door with the satchel prominently in his arms. Though he expected it to be snatched from him, nobody showed interest. Nobody knew its value, or his own.

Most people kept out of Bercik Scheldt’s way these days. Nobody hailed him on the halls, or chatted with him down the stairs anymore. Front desk barely looked at him. He was like a ghost walking. People who used to find him cheerful and boyishly handsome no longer did under an unkempt beard, a thick head of hair and bloodshot eyes. They did not leave him alone because he looked tough — he had never looked tough. They left him alone now because they thought he was diseased, and perhaps in a way he was. He snuck his satchel into his coat to offer it better protection from the rain, and crossed the threshold out into the world. Walking under the rain with his head down and his hat soaking up the water, without even an umbrella to his name, Bercik felt that he couldn’t even see people’s faces anymore when he looked at them.

It was like living in another world, like he was still seeing them through a glass.

He walked under the rain, across the corner from the tenement, dripping and cold, and then he slipped into a phone booth. Water pooled under his feet as he slipped a few copper mark coins into the machine and rotated the dial.

Bercik waited only for the phone to ring a few times, and then killed the call.

He let the handset hang by its cord for a while, and then he picked it up by the neck.

A new call, to a new number, all part of the secret procedure he had been told.

This time, someone picked up, clearly effecting a low, raspy voice as they spoke.

“You already got all I’m going to give you, my friend.”

“I know. But listen.” Bercik replied. He lowered his voice and bent closer to the phone, trying to insure nobody around could read his lips, or something similar. “I don’t think The National is gonna swing any more stories. I’m going to try; I want to try to get them to pick one. It’ll be drastic. We can’t do this little dripping and pouring shit anymore. We gotta come out.”

The voice replied, quickly and harshly. “I’m not coming out anywhere.”

“No, not you, I mean me. I’m gonna write about everything.”

“Everything? It’s too much for one story. I’m telling you, people will believe a drip feed of facts that can broil in their heads for a week. All at once without all the facts bare beforehand, it will sound like a conspiracy, my friend.”

“I’ve gotta take that chance. My editor, I think he’s gonna give up on us.”

“On you, you mean. I wouldn’t want to have to do anything drastic to protect myself.”

“You wont,” Bercik said desperately, “You won’t. You know what I meant.”

“I do; and yet, the phrasing is dangerous. You are becoming a little too close, my friend. This will be our final call. Like I said, I’ve given you everything I could have possibly given. If The National can’t stop the war, then it’s war.”

The Voice at the other end hung up. Bercik looked at the phone helplessly.

He had poured all of his life into a series of shocking headlines that had The National paper in the spotlight. When he was not out in places he shouldn’t be at, talking to people who didn’t exist after the fact, he was in his cramped bedroom, writing his stories squatted on the floor with the paper laid on the flat lid of his clothes chest. He was on the pay phone around the corner, dropping coins into machines to reach people who were torn between their opportunism and the call to stop a catastrophe. Out of his own money he had paid for a flight to reach a meeting where he paid more to crooked suits for government papers. Without wings he would not have made it in the time-frame they set up.

The Voice sure had given him a raw fuckin’ deal, he thought grimly.

Bercik kept walking, under the rain, further uptown. Overhead he saw clotheslines, emptied out when the rain started. There were hundreds of them between the buildings on either side of the street. Each of those clotheslines was a family of people, people who did not know. People with children, for crying out loud. Bercik moved faster, trying to outrun his mind. Out the tunnel of clotheslines he crossed a plaza. Statues of Nocht ideologues watched sternly over him, their plaques embossed with their names in small print, and their contributions to the world in large gold letters. The founding man, General Gunther Von Nocht, his plaque read “LIBERTY.” Anselm Schmidt, father of capitalism, his plaque read only “INDUSTRY.” There was a statue of the Messiah, white as chalk, bald — and suddenly, Bercik noticed, the statue was also bleeding from places unmentionable. And his plaque stood out the most as well. Situated at the center of the plaza, the statue stood like an opponent looking down on one’s path, flanked by a great, powerful and unharmed founding man in every compass direction. Yet, his plaque read, “SACRIFICE.”

He had never taken much notice of the wounds on the Messiah’s statue. The statue was all white, so the ruptures and the caked blood, all as white as his skin and face, it all just seemed part of the attire. Now that he looked at it again, as though for the first time, Bercik couldn’t help but think that it was pleading him, and not for veneration. Under the rain, it seemed in tears, begging him.

Bercik ran past and put the plaza behind him as quickly as he could.

The world stormed unabated over him as he crossed the streets and made his way far uptown, almost an hour’s worth of walking under the pitiless rain. Where a crowd formed, he would find some respite as people lifted their umbrellas over him to grant a momentary succor, but soon his suffering would begin anew. When he reached the diner, Bercik was so soaked that the waitress held him up at the door and patted him down all over with a towel. She admonished him, shouting about pneumonia. A pool of water formed on the rug in front of the door. He thanked the young lady and apologized for the inconvenience. It was a small diner, with a line of tables across the length of the front windows. There were polka-dot cloths and red leather seats on thick wooden frames. Had he not been sopping wet Bercik would’ve called it cozy.

Also, had his editor not sat, staring daggers at him, at the back of the place.

That hampered the atmosphere quite a bit as well.

He joined his boss, Hans, at his table, laying his satchel down beside him. Bercik affected a tough confidence, the kind that man’s men sort of editors appreciated from the robust writers of their time. He made his face stony, his movements rigid, like a predator readying to spring. Across from each other, they stared intensely as though they would fistfight at the earliest convenience. It was infuriating, like a game played by two little boys pretending to be adults. Except Hans was not a little boy; at fifty-four he was over twice Bercik’s age. His wrinkled face contorted into a grin around a thick cigar, glowing red at the end of his lips. He reached out and pulled Bercik’s hand over the table, shaking it roughly like he wanted to rip the arm out. He patted him on the shoulder, laughed heartily and raised a glass full of some indistinct liquor and drank.

“I got this for both of us. You can’t just sit here without anything.”

After downing his glass, Hans poured a tall drink for Bercik.

“How’s my favorite thug eh? Ready yet to go back to covering boxing?”

Hans raised his fists, smiling, and threw a few phantom punches.

Bercik wanted to sigh. This attitude, this feigned ignorance, was pathetic.

“I’ve got a tougher man to put down.” Bercik replied. It was good language for working with Hans. A tough-guy posture, where everything was a fight, where everything drew blood. “I’ve gotta give the man in Nocht Citadel a black eye.”

Hans grew silent for a moment. He grew serious. “Yes, that’s certainly been happening. That man’s let you punch his face a few times now, and it seems they’ve recently figured out The National was punching. And that it hurt.”

“Something happen?” Bercik asked.

“You haven’t been around the office lately, but others have.” Hans said.

Something happen?” Bercik asked again, nearly growling.

“We told them to fuck off.” Hans said. He took a long draw of his cigar.

“Good. That’s my man, Iron-Jaw Hans.”

Hans looked out the window. “I’ve begun to notice, Scheldt; when you throw a punch at something, I’m the one who sits and gets hit back. You should drop around the office sometime and take a few of those yourself, chum.”

Bercik shrugged. “I’ve been working Hans, you know I’ve been working.”

“Ok.” Hans said tersely. He put his cigar and continued. “On what now? Find out that President Lehner has been fucking Queen Vittoria or something? That would be a fresh turn from some of this other shit you’ve been digging up.”

Tiring of the bullshit, Bercik cracked open his satchel and pushed the envelope inside across to Hans. His tough-guy editor was less than enthused to receive another mysterious-looking pack bursting with stamped government documents. This time it was a variety of shipping and storage papers, tracing the life of a series of M4 Sentinel tanks, top of the line, along with Heinrich no. 27 Archer monoplanes, from their inception in arms factories in Tauta and Oster, and their journey to Mamlakha and Cissea, Nocht’s relatively new client states. Each document covered 20 or 30 tanks and planes, but the orders piled up. Over a thousand vehicles had been delivered to each country in the past five months.

“This just isn’t compelling to me, Bercik. Explain your angle here. We’re giving our new allies the hardware they need to defend themselves. Seems altruistic to me. I don’t know what to tell you, other than I wish this was a sex story.”

“Do you think Cissea can afford this Hans? Look at that. A hundred tanks a week for the past two months? They could buy fifty tanks from us right now, tops. Not five hundred of the god damn things! And the planes, good lord, almost four hundred planes down to Cissea, and all of them top of the line? You don’t even see these in air shows, this stuff’s brand new. Doesn’t this look fishy?

“What do people care if we’re giving Cissea planes now? Come on, ah.” Hans laughed and waved his hands as though trying to swipe the words out of the air. He acted with a self-effacing cheer, as though his charm and wit alone could get Bercik to shut up and swing the day around for him. He knew better than that, Bercik knew that he did, but they had to go through the routine.

“You know what this looks to me and to my sources? Military mobilization.”

Hans raised his hands defensively. “You’re reaching now.”

Bercik pulled open his satchel and dropped stapled set of papers onto the table.

It was a draft.

“I’m not reaching, I’m writing.” Bercik started to talk fast. His heart was pounding. He set his shoulders, tried to look determined and to talk with conviction. He had to get this. “I’m writing about how the Libertaires promised us no more wars, and now all the technocrats and whiz kids are gleefully about to plunge the world into hell. It’s all goin’ to fucking Ayvarta, Hans. Why the hell else would Cissea, and Mamlakha for fuck’s sakes, why would we send them tanks and planes, to MAMLAKHA, why would we send a ‘peace force’ of over 300,000 men? It’s war, these guys are setting up for war, and the people deserve to know it right now. We can put a stop to this, they ran on peace–”

“Peace force? You know why the peace force is going, you covered it! They’re going to stop the terrorists in Mamlakha. Everyone knows this now Bercik you can’t just change the facts. This is getting crazy now, too crazy for you.”

“Is it crazy? What do we care about Mamlakhan terrorists? Ayvarta’s across those borders, and we care about that. Deploying this ‘peace force’ after sending Mamlakha a thousand vehicles? After all the speeches of the menace of communism in Cissea? This is not about Mamlakha or Cissea. All along those have just been stepping stones, Hans. Our government is after Ayvarta, and it’ll be–”

“Stop, Bercik,” Hans interrupted him suddenly, raising his voice. But he then paused, and he let out air for a moment, a long exasperated and anxious sigh while he pulled he ran his hands over his head, and sat far back in his seat as though he thought he might get socked from across the table. He was reaching for words that might sound like a reasonable excuse. Bercik had seen that face far too many times now. He had seen it in tabloid pieces about celebrity affairs and he had seen it in tough pieces about mayoral scandals and mob violence. It was hard to believe he was seeing it again, and in a story of this magnitude. “These guys are heavyweights Scheldt, you have to understand this. And they’re getting real tired of your shit. Citadel Nocht is set to bury us, they’ll make sure we can’t cover a fuckin’ baseball game ever again, ok? And they’re being gracious right now. They’re willing to drop everything, give us access to some primary, reliable source documents, and stop badgering us for your mystery benefactors: if we’ll give them a place to air their side of the story, and drop the subject. I’m willing to take this and you should be too.”

“God damn it Hans. The past few stories we did don’t even climb a meter up the iceberg. You know this is bullshit, you know the only thing we’ll get is a whole lot of papers filled with black bars. I’ve got real stories from real mouths and real eyes who’ve seen the real shit here. Real shit. You’ve got constitutional rights for fuck’s sakes, you need to stand up for yourself!”

“I know it is bullshit Bercik, but we have no choice.” Hans said. He was almost to the point of shouting. Bercik could not believe this. Here was Iron-Jaw Hans, who got deep in the shit with the police in the labor riots twenty years ago, ready to lie down for the boys in blue? What world had Bercik Scheldt been transported to? Hans sighed and kept talking. “If we keep going against these guys we’ll be run out of town. Those last stories you did about all the corporations and the cronyism and the oil shit in Mamlakha, that’s got them really pissed right now. Everything they would do to us is legal. We can’t force them to let us operate in peace, they make the laws here. For the love of the Messiah they could even say we’re commies and send the boys in blue to give us a good beating every Sixthday just to check if we’re not sending communiques down to the Commissars in Svechtha or something. You need to look at it from my perspective ok? I’ve got a family, I’ve got kids to think of here.”

Bercik rolled his eyes and put his fist on the table. He was still playing the tough guy, and he couldn’t believe his ears, he couldn’t believe that Hans was not playing the tough guy anymore alongside him. “Fuck you and your family.”

“Don’t do this to me now, ok?” Hans said. For once he sounded pleading. “Right now, I’m the only person in this damn city looking out for you. In twenty years when you retire with kids and a wife and a house, you’ll thank me.”

“Eat shit.” Bercik shouted. He lowered his voice and leaned forward with a dangerous look in his eye. “I don’t need fucking kids. I need you to publish this story ASAP or the world’s going to hell, Hans. The two biggest military forces in the world will be going at it soon. Millions of people will die. Not just their people, our people. There’ll be conscription, rationing. You lived through the unification war you stupid piece of shit, I didn’t, and yet here I am, being the only one in the room that fucking remembers. We can stop that. We have to.”

Hans stared right into Bercik eyes. He had a haunted look of his own.

“Yeah, I lived through it, ok. It’s not like that can happen again.”

Bercik grunted with exhaustion. “It is happening! And it will be worse this time. We’ve got bomber planes now, we’ve got tanks, we’ve got bombs that weigh 400 kilograms, and they’ve got all that too. There’ll be air raids, there’ll be firebombs sweeping the fields. Kids as young as seventeen can sign up right now to go to that. How can you sit back and not do anything, when you can stop this?”

“It’s just a story, Bercik. It wouldn’t have done anything but screw us over.”

Bercik was quick to answer, and sharp, as though it was a personal insult to him.

“No, you’re wrong. The people have a right to know. They can demand this stop.”

“We can’t stop this.” Hans said. He smiled a little, and looked down at the table. “I’ve got a living to protect here. If I survived the unification war as a kid, then my kids will survive it too. But I can’t survive having enemies in Citadel Nocht.”

Bercik couldn’t believe what he was hearing. It just did not register to him that someone would hear what he said, and then would elect to sit back and do nothing about it. He thought that he had tried his best, in his mind he kept replaying the words, and to him, they perfectly depicted the death and the madness he saw on the horizon. In his mind he had painted at this table a picture fully realizing the flames, the smell of rot, the thick gunpowder-choked air. It was in his draft. But Hans pushed the draft back across the table. This act seemed somehow definitive, a confirmation that Bercik’s words hadn’t reached anyone, that maybe he hadn’t even said anything that he needed to. He had fucked up; Bercik felt a pit form in his stomach, and a sudden wave of nausea. His legs shook under the table and his hands above.

“I’ll take it to another paper. One that’ll take the risk.” Bercik threatened.

“You know there isn’t any. None of them want this responsibility.” Hans said.

There was silence between them for a moment before Hans simply stood up from the table and left the diner entirely. Bercik remained, sitting in his chair, shaking and staring at the empty seat, wondering if it was all some awful dream. Would he awaken tomorrow and repeat this day and do it right? In his mind he had not yet crossed that one-way door between a world in which he saw a future that was possible, a future where life and color returned to his picture of his life past the month; and one in which the chaos of war was inevitable, where monochrome became red with blood and fire, all far beyond any of his means to stop. Trapped in his own consciousness, Bercik sat for close to an hour alone in that diner, still wondering what he could say, what he could write, that would get this story on the front of The National and save Nocht.

11th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Kingdom of Lubon, Territory of Pallas — Royal Airstrip

7 Days Before Generalplan Suden Zero Hour

Flight would never take off in a big way, or so people had once said. No average person could even conceive of a reason to venture from their country and cross the seas. To visit a neighboring region a train was more cost-effective; for most people even leaving their village was a waste of time. At best, people conceived of airplanes as military and diplomatic tools.

However, the Queen had always been enamored with technology, and thus she did not heed these detractors. During the twenty years ago she had laid down Lubon’s first airstrip, within sight of the Royal Villa at Pallas. Over time the importance of the Royal Airstrip, as well as its size and its contingent of planes, had increased. It was now fully stocked with all manner of aircraft: there were small biplanes, short monoplanes with twin engines and room for a few, and a couple of large passenger craft.

As usual the royal delegation would be flown to the territory of Nocht across the North Sea by the official Pellicano royal plane that was festooned with Queen Vittoria’s sigils and the oak tree flag of the Kingdom. This was a very large craft considering the few people that were to board it. It had 4 propeller engines, and a 3o meter span, and it derived its namesake from its broad nose.

Princess Salvatrice felt small next to the mammoth craft. She had never flown before.

She did not board with her mother the Queen: she had not, in fact, even arrived at the airstrip with her mother. She had been hastily taken from her studies at the messianic academy and taken via private car to the airstrip, unceremoniously and without any of her possessions, and no guarantee that any of her servants would make it onto the plane. Now she approached the craft and boarded from a hatch opposite that which her mother would be using. She could see her mother’s car parked on the other side of the strip.

She wondered dimly if Clarissa would be joining them on the plane as well.

Two black-clad men led her up the ramp and into the aircraft. They were gentle and deferring, but the princess could not help but feel that she was being forced, pressured, driven to move against her will. Those men were not insuring her safety, but her compliance. Inside the aircraft she met face to face with her mother for the first time in what seemed like years.

Tall and majestic, the Queen approached from the other end of the plane like an opponent, with a gliding stride, guarded by two blue-clad, rifle-armed cavaliere, Lubon’s revered Knights. Salva bowed her head to her mother, whose appearance seemed to shift the gravity in the room. She had a powerful and beautiful countenance, framed with bountiful and perfectly straight golden hair, accented by intense green eyes and the long, sharp ears characteristic of pureblooded Lubonin. Every second string of fabric in her ornate dress seemed woven out of silver, and she glittered from the curve of her shoulders to the hem of her dragging skirt.

“Raise your head, Salvatrice.” The Queen gently commanded.

Her voice sent a shill down the princess’ spine. She curtsied, and stood as tall as she could.

Reverita Madre. Dio vi benedica.” She said, a trembling in her voice.

Dio vi benedica, figlia.” Queen Vittoria replied.

The Queen raised her hand and the guards and knights made toward the front of the plane.

They were greeted by servants, none of which were Savaltrice’s, and some of the air crew. Side by side the royals walked down the aisle, along the plush seats in the interior of the plane, to a table laid down for special guests, bolted to the floor near the very back of the craft. There were two chairs for them, held down with adjustable clamps that allowed the air crew to unfasten them, move the seats to new positions and then clamp them again to insure they would not move in flight.

Princess Salvatrice sat, across from her mother. She felt the backrest of the chair forcing her spine straight, it was so rigid, hard and tall. More servants appeared from another room with tea and pastries. Princess Salvatrice did not fancy eating. She had been made to change into a dress before travelling out. It was a functional and form fitting gown compared to her mother’s, with tight sleeves and a high neck and a restrained sort of skirt, like the bulb of a tulip. But it was still mostly white, and could so easily stain.

“It is an honor to be with you this day, mother.” Salva said.

“Merely an honor?” Queen Vittoria replied, grinning a bit.

Salva stared down at the cups, feeling her attempt to be filial had been wholly misguided. She remained silent, stewing in a brief shame, until she saw her mother’s hand glide closer to her face, and those long, elegant, bejeweled fingers gently lifted her chin, as easily as raising a feather from the ground. Her mother’s stark green eyes narrowed as they took stock of Salva’s condition.

“My poor child. Doctors said exercise and sun and southern air would improve your constitution. But oh, my dear, all it has seemed to do is darken your complexion. You will need to build strength: haste and travel are in your future.”

Vittoria’s fingers brushed aside the long locks of reddish-blonde hair covering the sides of Salva’s head, cut close to the shoulder. She pulled her daughter’s hair back enough to see her ears, shorter and blunter than those of pure Lubonin like the Queen and the Knights. Her hands then traveled down Salvatrice’s narrow shoulders, across her skinny arms. Salvatrice’s had the terrible feeling that those piercing green eyes, the only thing in common between them, were harshly judging her. She felt like flinching away from her mother and waited for the sting of some cruel word or another, but instead, the Queen’s expression was unnaturally tender and her words were uncharacteristically gentle.

“You remind me of your father. Take that as a compliment. He was a beautiful man.”

The Queen’s fingers retreated from her daughter’s flesh. Salva nodded her head.

“Nocht is an exciting country.” Vittoria said. “I’m sure it will lend you energy.”

Salvatrice finally touched her tea and even bit into a scone, anything to excuse herself from speaking. Her mother also began to eat, until the plane was made fully ready. Then they sat next to each on other on one of the benches, a fancier piece of furniture even than the lounge seating at the academy. Servants appeared to fasten Salvatrice and Vittoria’s seat belts as the propellers turned and the plane charged down the runway. They had scarcely managed to seat themselves by the time the plane took off, and a few almost fell. Salvatrice gasped, watching them. Vittoria paid them no heed, as though they had ceased existing the moment their hands stopped performing a service for her.

She had envisioned flight as a romantic sensation, the air rushing past her, feet dangling, wings beating, a sense of freedom, swimming in mid-air; the plane satisfied none of those feelings. High in the sky, she felt heavier and more tied to the ground than she ever had. The vibrations of the metal craft seemed to travel across her legs and cause her to perpetually shake. She did not know how her mother seemed to keep steady in the midst of it. Looking out the window made her feel sick.

Beneath them the green landscape and then blue sea became a disorienting blur. And there was no escaping the fact that she was essentially chained down next to her mother. She prodded Salvatrice about her studies, about her health. She asked her questions, as though to quiz her, but she never corrected her or revealed the current score.

It was maddening, and the silence between each fragmented episode made it only more so.

Several hours later, there was once again land beneath the plane. Snow-covered, mountainous terrain quickly gave way to pale tundra. The Pellicano had taken them from the center of Lubon to the northern edge of Nocht. They would be in Citadel Nocht in another hour or two at this rate, which was absolutely astounding to Salvatrice. While she looked out the window and marveled openly, the servants very carefully brought them goblets of wine and laid down an antipasti plate for each of the women. The antipasto consisted of neatly arranged cheeses, cured meats, artichoke hearts, tomatoes and mushrooms. The wrapped silverware was truly made out of silver.

“Did you eat well at the Academy, my dear?” Vittoria asked.

“I ate better than my classmates.” Salvatrice said.

“Good. You should. I made sure of it. I realize, dear daughter, that I could not be there for you personally throughout your studies. But I hope you realize in turn that I personally arranged for your life to be one of comfort and good health.”

“I know, honored mother. Thank you.” Salvatrice replied. It felt like talking to a stranger in a stranger’s voice. None of this was natural. All of the formality and care between them made it seem like a puppeteer’s play of a mother and a daughter.

Vittoria smiled. “I hope that my love and my care shone through to you in the resources that you enjoyed. As my daughter, a light upon Lubon, you deserve the best our Kingdom can offer. Food and clothing, an education, the best doctors in the world laboring to improve you; in all these, I hope that through the years you have seen my warm hand at work, though you could not feel it in flesh.”

Salvatrice nodded meekly. All those were things she could not have honestly said she had felt. In reality her mother was so distant that she needed a special voice to speak to her and could not use her own. This was at best an alien idea of love.

“I say this because I hope soon to overwhelm you with the love that I had previously not been able to give. I feel regret that I did not sooner take you from the countryside and into my bosom.” Vittoria said. “I want you close, henceforth.”

Salvatrice’s lips contorted into a false smile. To all eyes, it seemed sincere.

“I am overjoyed to receive your attentions, dear mother. I have longed for this day.”

She knew better than to ask what had happened to her older sister, Clarissa.

All of their conversation, bereft of this fact, denying this context, was nothing but a torrent of pretty lies. From the instant she boarded the plane she had known something was amiss. Clarissa had not been there beside the Queen, in her rightful place. But Salvatrice knew not to bring it up. This act of evasion was not something she had learned previously, not a technique of the court. This was her common sense, the barest fact of the existence. Always she had been painfully aware that she was a discarded second.

Clarissa had direct access to the Queen throughout her life, direct access to matters of state, a private tutelage in Pallas and not in a Messianic academy miles and miles away from the nerve-center of power. Salvatrice acted as though the stars had realigned and transported her to a new world where a new set of facts and rules applied, but she still saw the remnants of the old, she carried them like a scar. Her sister had been revered, and she had been abased, as much as a princess could be.

And yet, Clarissa was not on this plane giving contrived graces to her mother.

Salvatrice was; and so she smiled, and she played along in this strange new world.

Knowing all throughout, that she, the second daughter, should not be here.

She, the scandalous offspring of a foreign man, should have remained hidden away.

12th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Nocht Federation Republic of Rhinea – Citadel Nocht

6 Days Before Generalplan Suden Zero Hour

A dull ache settled across Princess Salvatrice’s cheeks. To smile as she did, to wear that falsity on her face for so long, took effort. It was titanic, and it hurt more than all the horse riding, swimming, and mile running that she had ever done.

Since landing in Citadel Nocht’s National Airport on the 6th, the Queen and Princess had been honored guests of the Libertaires, the party currently in control of the presidency and bicameral legislature of the Nocht Federation. They were met by a jovial diplomat at the airport, and he ferried them through the gentle snowfall via a sleek private car, driving deep into the city, where the buildings rose like otherworldly spires, black skyward features of glass and metal with an imposing, polished, faceless appearance.

Led into the maw of one such monument, they escaped the gray and white world outside and into a vibrant, golden, palatial suite, where they dined under a chandelier. Six courses were served, with colorful vegetables, succulent meat, silky and flavorful soup, and festive, decorated desserts. It was a feast almost more for the eyes than the mouth. Salva felt like she was defacing art when she tasted a cut of meat, peeled a slice of oily beet from a salad plate, or forked a piece of chocolate cake.

“Unfortunately, Herr Präsident will be unable to join us tonight,” said the diplomat, an Herr Svend, seated at the opposite end of the table from the Queen and off to one side of the Princess. He was a lanky man with slick black hair and blunt facial features, older than Salvatrice by at least a decade, yet someone who could still be called young. “He looks forward to your meeting tomorrow.”

They were all speaking Nochtish now, a rough and aggressive-sounding language that the Princess could only speak in short sentences. She had tried to offer thanks to the driver of their car, a duty beneath her mother, but she had tied her tongue in a knot trying. Lubon was a flowing, elegant tongue, a language of romance and poetry, of lyrical beauty — or so she had been taught.

To her ear, Nochtish was like the wailing of a beast. She had been actively afraid of those voices as a child, and as an adult she admitted to a little apprehension still. She could not tell anger from joy in the Nochtish tongue.

Her mother had an almost divine gift with it, of course, and she spoke perfectly.

“How unfortunate. I would have wanted Salvatrice to meet him in a more relaxing setting than a military policy discussion. He and his wife are lovely people.” Queen Vittoria said. She even smiled at Svend, who nodded graciously back. In this kind of setting, the Queen was at her most relaxed. Salva noticed her own princessly manner in her mother, delicately cheerful and youthful. Here it was alright for her to relax the Queenly mask and at least appear to enjoy herself. Whether she truly was enjoying herself, Salva could not know.

“Yes, it is a dire circumstance indeed that has kept him away, milady.” Svend said. He acted at all times with a calm and inviting demeanor of his own, a gentleman who had to present his country as softly and warmly as possible. “He would not pass up any opportunity to dine with such lovely guests as yourselves, but these were truly inescapable matters involving his personal cabinet.”

“His loss has become your fortune.” Princess Salvatrice said. She smiled, partly at her athletic pronunciation.

The Queen allowed herself a tiny chuckle behind a delicately raised hand.

“Oh indeed! Indeed!” Svend laughed, and raised his wine glass to honor Salvatrice.

“Indeed. Though, I am concerned for Herr Präsident. I became appraised of the leaks concerning the Generalplan and was told there would be nothing to worry about.” Queen Vittoria said. “Should I be cautious of these developments?”

“Oh no, not at all.” Svend quickly said. “We found the source of the leaks and are taking measures to insure that the public consumes this information in a proper context. Only one newspaper took an antagonistic role, and they’ve changed their minds since those stories; after we gave them access to new information they broadened their views. You will find that the media is very reasonable.”

“I am glad to hear it.” Queen Vittoria raised her own glass. “To the free press!”

“We could not live without it!” Svend laughed heartily, raising his own glass.

Princess Salvatrice smiled meekly and said nothing. Though both Svend and the Queen discussed these events like they were tearoom gossip, chuckling and smiling like old friends, Salva could not help but think that there was a sinister undertone to everything they said, to the way they treated the controversy like the first words words out of an infant child. In Lubon’s papers and radio programs very little of it was discussed: the distance was too great. But as a student at a prestigious university, Salva had access to papers like The National and The Federal Review to keep abreast of Nochtish news. She had read about the fallout of the past few weeks. It was not such a laughing matter.

Salva would’ve spoken, but Princess Salvatrice could not.

After dinner Svend offered them gifts of soft mink coats and hats, winter-wear greatly in vogue with the high-class ladies around Rhinea. Princess Salvatrice found ocassion to wear her coat immediately: the party was headed out of the warm suite for a tour of Citadel Nocht, the nerve-center of high class culture and of the Federation’s government and politics. From the windows of their car and through the gentle drift of snow Salva saw the broad roads, teeming with motor cars and trolleys, that constituted the bloodstream of the City of Steel.

“Take us to the park, I want Salvatrice to see it.” Queen Vittoria said.

“Gladly, milady. We still have plenty of time.” Svend replied. He signaled the driver.

Minutes later they arrived at the Industrial Park, a vast indoor plaza like a glass cube in the middle of the city, where the machinery of capitalism was almost worshiped. The Princess saw numerous exhibitions of engines and cars and planes on public display, severed in half so that one could see the inner workings in the metal flesh.

She strode through mock-ups of factories, bronze autamata representing the workers that churned out the machines in conveyor belts and across shipyards and automobile factories, in joyous cooperation with the capitalists and industrialists who secured them the materials to do their work and awarded them fair wages driven by the market.

Pretty women in fitting costumes, such as airline crew and worker’s overalls, led children and families on tours of the facility, explaining to them the History of Industry.

They walked across the plaza in a little guarded entourage. Two Knights that had accompanied them on the plane had left their own car and walked alongside the Princess and Queen. They did not carry long arms, but they had pistols under their gold-trimmed blue coats. Their ears were very sharp, like her mothers’, and it made Salva a little anxious about comparisons. She was the only Lubonin in the entire plaza without long ears.

And people were looking: with Svend and a tour woman at the head of their procession, and two Nochtish guards at the back, the Queen and the Princess and their entourage stood out to all the visitors, and heads turned whenever they joined an existing tour group at an exhibition. It soon felt to Salva that she and her mother were becoming as much a part of the exhibitions that day as the machines.

She felt the stares.

“Don’t shy away.” Queen Vittoria told her daughter. “Bask in their awe. You deserve it.”

Salva wondered bitterly what had happened overnight that led her to deserve awe.

In earnest the tour continued, with Svend growing more energetic as they went, clearly invested in the attractions. He seemed more genuine than anyone else in the party. And indeed he felt more genuine than many of the exhibitions.

Salvatrice was a little perturbed by the surroundings.

All of the trees inside the plaza were false, for example. They were machines with a textured exterior and plastic leaves. From afar they fit the bill, but after passing by enough of them Salva could see the welded seams where the machine’s plates had come together under the bark texture. “In the future, we can have air purifiers masquerade as trees,” explained a tour guide, “these machines are display models, and have a limited range, but they are able to take in the air near them and clean it. In the future, one tree will remove smog from a whole city block.”

“Real trees grow poorly in Citadel Nocht, I’m afraid.” Svend commented.

Queen Vittoria laughed delicately. Princess Salvatrice smiled.

She smiled mostly to cover up how disturbing it all felt. Falseness within falseness, lies after lies.

When they had thoroughly exhausted the exhibitions in the History of Industry, Svend’s face grew rosy and he led them to his favorite area of the plaza. They passed through an archway into another half of the glass cube, and this one proudly displayed  The New Age of Warfare.  Clockwork automaton soldiers in gray uniforms, wearing the tall Stalhhelm of the Nochtish armed forces, strode in pre-determined paths across the exhibition, saluting, running with their rifles, taking aim at the walls and ceiling as though in real combat.

Here the exhibitions were a little more guarded. None of the vehicles had visible cross-sections as in the History of Industry exhibition. There was an enormous Fatherland tank, the first tank Nocht ever developed and a copy of the Lubonin Remus, hardly more than a set of massive tracks with machine guns on sponson mounts. This led to the first turreted tank, the M1 Warrior, essentially a smaller metal box on tracks with a cubical turret atop housing two machine guns.

“We have an M3 and M4 now, but the exhibition for the public ends with the M2.” Svend explained, gesturing toward the M2 Ranger. Larger than the Warrior, and with a more complex rounded turret housing a real cannon (albeit a small, 37mm gun), the M2 looked a lot more like the tanks Salvatrice had seen in pictures and newspapers and in the military parades at home. Below the M2’s pedestal, a golden plaque read, THIS MACHINE GUARDS YOUR FREEDOM. Salva thought that was a little ironic, considering the tank was obsolete.

“So this is your favorite spot, Svend?” Salvatrice asked, pronouncing the words slowly.

“Quite! I helped oversee the construction of this exhibition. I financed some of the pieces.”

Svend looked fondly upon the Fatherland tank. “But it is incomplete!”

“Incomplete?” Salva asked. She thought she mistook the word for another.

“I have tried to convince your mother to send us a Remus for the exhibitions here, but ah, it is a difficult thing to arrange.” He said. Queen Vittoria laughed. “Perhaps when you are Queen, my dear, you’ll allow us to enshrine one here?”

Princess Salvatrice did not know how to respond other than to close her eyes and affect a slightly wider smile, as though she were so amused at the thought of being Queen. In reality, it was such a scary thing to consider it shocked her near senseless, and all of her Nochtish seemed suddenly to escape her. She merely smiled and hoped that she would be written off as an airhead and left alone.

“The Remus is Lubonin history.” Queen Vittoria interjected. “And we don’t have very many left.”

“For a military boy like me, it just feels incomplete not having a Remus here.” Svend lamented.

Salva kept quiet the rest of the trip, as they looked at some aircraft bombs, inert of course, and then visited an industrial-looking cafeteria and gift shop on the way out. The Queen showed a little more of that youthful idiosyncrasy she allowed private company to enjoy by buying a sandwich from the cafeteria, where the staff became clearly awestruck and could hardly work.

She did not end up eating the sandwich: the action, the show, was simply the Queen of a foreign country dropping in on cafeteria workers and receiving their compliments and adulation. Nobody seemed to offer the same to the Princess, except vaguely, in association, the same way they treated Svend. How could they? Until a few days ago she had been a phantom to the politics of her own country.

How could anyone in Nocht be supposed to know her and treat her like a Queen?

After the plaza, they drove north of the city, to the harbor. All of the water was frozen over, and only icebreakers could plow through to the piers. In the distance, a tall statue stood just a few miles off the harbor, in its own little island. This was the Mother of Industry, a symbol for Nocht. It had been commissioned and built by a rich man to represent Nocht’s values, or so Salva had read. For the Nochtish people, anything was possible with hard work. Industry, then, was the key that united and liberated them all, and they were thankful for it.

Salvatrice wondered what people from different countries would think seeing that statue. It was snowy out, and hard to make out the shape in the distance. All Salva knew, in her first time seeing The Mother of Industry, was what significance other people gave it in the books she read. They were soon off again in the car, the snow picking up, and Salva never got to see the actual shape of the statue.

Winds picked up, and the snowfall thickened. A blizzard cut their happy afternoon short, and they returned to the suite. Salvatrice had her own guest bedroom, itself the size of a small apartment. It had a washroom with a bath and a shower, and its own couch and coffee-table seating area. Her bed was large enough to fit three of her, and a plate of snacks and a wine bottle rested bedside.

Servants from the hotel were ready to take care of her the instant she arrived, pulling off her coat and working on the dress cords behind her back. She nearly yelled, but retained her composure and simply waved them all away: it was so distasteful to her that it was the express purpose of these total strangers to await her and disrobe her. She missed her own personal attendant deeply. Once alone in her room, she undressed herself and stood in the shower, under warm water for several minutes, until a cloud of white steam filled the enclosure.

She donned a complimentary robe and fell asleep in it, dead tired. Her back hurt, as did her feet from wearing raised slippers: but what hurt most was her face, her cheeks, the area around her eye sockets. They had made the greatest effort that day.

13th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Nocht Federation Republic of Rhinea – Citadel Nocht

5 Days Before Generalplan Suden Zero Hour

After a lavish breakfast, Salvatrice found herself in a private car once again.

Along with the Queen, she was driven past the spires of the inner city, and up a tall hill to a large, black, dome-shaped building, honeycomb-like etchings glowing gold across its surface. She was given no warnings, no impression of what her role would be; her mother trusted that she simply knew by instinct not to embarrass her.

All Salvatrice knew was that they were headed to the Citadel itself, in order to participate in a military policy meeting. At the top of the hill the car drove behind the dome-shaped structure, and the guards led them from a private parking space hidden behind the dome into an elevator, and up to the highest level of the building. They stepped out onto a lobby, and from there walked to the meeting room, where a round table held a map of the world.

Lights played tricks in this room: illumination was widely dispersed, and all of it was coming from low along the walls and from the map on the table, so that a gloom seemed to settle over people’s faces. They were like the ghosts children pretended to be, flashing lights under their chins to appear frightening to others in the dark. It was an eerie place in which to set a meeting.

Queen Vittoria and Princess Salvatrice took their places around the table, joining the delegation already there.

Across from them, Nocht’s President, Achim Lehner, welcomed the royals. He was a handsomer and younger-seeming man than Salvatrice had expected. He had a high nose bridge and low cheekbones, smooth blonde hair short on the sides but gelled back over the top, and deep set blue eyes. He had a confident and complex look. Salvatrice was wary of him already.

“Vittoria! I am so happy to see you.” President Lehner said. “And your daughter is lovely, I am glad she is here. I had thought I would be meeting Clarissa again today, but I am pleasantly surprised. You should let Salvatrice out more often!”

The Queen’s smile visibly dropped, but she gave no reply. Salvatrice lowered her head.

“You must be pleased to finally meet more royal blood in the flesh, hmm?”

President Lehner addressed a young woman who stood next to him.

She was not his wife, an actress and model who Salva had seen in the papers several times. No, this was a different lady. She had a dark brown complexion, a small, flat nose and black hair that was collected into twin braids across the sides of her head, connecting into an ornate bun at the back of her head. Her eyes were a sharp green, like Salvatrice’s own, and she was as lavishly dressed as anyone in the room with a long and well-fitted glittering black dress.

Salvatrice recognized her: she was Sarahastra, Empress-In-Exile of Ayvarta.

Salva corrected her train of thought quickly: the woman had changed her name, to “Mary Trueday,” taking a Messianic-sounding name. She wanted to be respectful of this change, of course, and hoped she would not get the name wrong. But it was hard not to think of her as Sarahastra. Her presence in Nocht had always been well publicized, and she had become something of an iconic victim of Ayvarta’s Communist regime over the years. Salvatrice had not seen very many Ayvartans in her lifetime, and found herself a bit captivated by Empress Trueday. She had a lovely and unique appearance in Salva’s eyes. But her expression was dour and reserved.

“I am pleased to make the acquaintance of the revered Queen Vittoria and her daughter.” Mary Trueday said, bowing her head lightly. “It is my hope this day that we will successfully embark to liberate my country from a brutal tyranny.”

“Oh, my dear, not business, not quite yet. We’ve guests still to arrive.” Lehner said.

Mary Trueday responded with a deferring nod of the head to the President.

Hanwa’s own delegation, the final piece of the puzzle, arrived soon after. An older man, bronze-skinned and with an angular look to his eyes, a foreigner among foreigners, entered the room. He was Salvatrice’s height, shorter than Lehner, but certainly better built, muscular and broad shouldered. He was dressed in a beige and red uniform. A symbol of a white sun over a red field prominently covered his shoulder-guards, and he wore a long sword with a gently curved blade in its sheathe.

Salvatrice thought he could not be a civil leader, that he must have been a general. But he was quickly introduced by President Lehner as the Shogun of Hanwa, its de-facto leader. While Hanwa had a royal line, much the same as Lubon, the Emperor of Hanwa was a figurehead, unlike Queen Vittoria, who had an active hand in all the policy of her land.

Ohayou-gozaimasu, Kagutsuchi-sama.” President Lehner said, bowing stiffly.

Shogun Kagu, as he was known among his people for short, looked amused.

“It seems we are all here. Let us skip the pleasantries. We are here to plan a war.” He replied.

“Oh, it’s already planned, mostly.” President Lehner said. “I had my boys take a crack at it. Past few months we’ve been running the numbers, building up, wondering among ourselves, ‘hey, can we do this?’ And we found that: yeah, we can.”

He clapped his hands and the table upturned, its face spinning like a reversible tile. What appeared in place of the world map when the device had settled again was a specific map of Ayvarta, its surface marred with lines and arrows and numbers.

There were dates, routes of advance, strategically important holdings, resource-rich areas. In the center of Ayvarta, across its great Red Desert, was Solstice, the capital, and the place where all the lines, all the arrows, and the final dates all intersected.

Across the top and bottom of the map were the words Generalplan Suden. Nocht forces deployed out of Cissea and Mamlakha, and moved quickly up the continent. According to the dates Salvatrice was reading, they planned to take Solstice by the end of the Postill’s Dew: in just eight months. Lubon forces would drop from the Northwest and Hanwan attacks from the sea would target the Northeast and Far East corners of the great southern continent. They would surround the communists completely, from all sides.

“Nice strategic table, isn’t it?” Lehner said in a joking tone to his guests. “I’m glad I didn’t invite the Svechthans here. It would have been awkward if the table had ended up being taller than them.” He chuckled and grinned. Salvatrice covered her mouth a little in shock. She was a comparatively sheltered girl, she knew, but it was a bit shocking to hear such an insensitive joke in this setting.

“I hope, Mr. President, that you have a real plan somewhere not on this table.” Shogun Kagu said.

“‘Course I do! You’ll get copies. I’ve got plenty. But the map says a lot, doesn’t it?”

“About your ego, perhaps. But I will not stake my armies on your mathematicians. My country is already fighting a war to subdue the savages in Yu-Kitan and claim the land that is Hanwa’s birthright. I expect you to support that as well.”

“Oh I do, believe me.” President Lehner said, smiling. “Yu-Kitan is another playground for the commies. You can bet you’ll have help from our Panzers down there as soon as we can muster it, Kagu-sama. Can’t have them running the Jade Land.”

“Is Svechtha on the agenda as well then?” Queen Vittoria asked. “They are communists.”

“‘Fraid not, milady.” President Lehner said. He seemed to be in his element around this crowd, talking fast, gesturing as though he was staging a play. He had been an actor once. “Svechtha will collapse when Ayvarta stops sending the pipsqueaks food, so don’t worry about them. A direct assault on them is just too costly and the rock they live on is just too worthless. But trust me: you’ll get ’em.”

Queen Vittoria seemed greatly dissatisfied by this answer. But she did not press it.

“The Svechthans are a pitiful, weak people.” Kagu-sama interjected, closing his fist as though to symbolize crushing the Svechthans as a whole in his palm. “They can hardly squeeze a grain of wheat from that dead land they inhabit, and they are built like children. Aid me in Yu-Kitan, Faery Queen, and I promise you upon my honor that Hanwa will deliver to you that icy rock next.”

“I will hold you to that.” Queen Vittoria said, unflinching toward the outdated title.

Salvatrice found it odd, seeing her mother in this setting. She had thought her mother invincible, a goddess on Aer. Everything should have been mutable in her grasp. And yet, here she stood with other people of equivalent power. She accepted their terms and did not set her own. Salvatrice was seeing the fallibility of her living parent for the first time. In a way, it emboldened her personally: but she also knew that if she ever took this office, she too may find herself a weak link within a pack of wolves if that was indeed what was happening in this room. Nobody’s thoughts here were open or obvious to her. She could only infer. But she had a sense Lubon was the weakest party here.

“Ok, that was weird, anyway,” President Lehner chuckled, “Anyway, eyes on me please. I’m going to run you through exactly how we’ll end the threat of Communism once and for all, and return my dear friend Lady Trueday to her rightful place in Ayvarta. I’ll also explain our casus belli: that one is simple. Communism is an ideology of chaos and destruction and must be eliminated.”

Mary Trueday nodded her head and smiled a little.

President Lehner clapped his hands and the map turned anew.

“You know how I do that? I have people under the reversible table changing the maps. A magician is not supposed to explain his trick, but I can’t help it. It’s such a neat trick. Anyway, feast your eyes on all those beautiful divisions.”

Across the bottom of this new map, 20 military divisions in Cissea and 30 military divisions in Mamlakha, a total of over half a million fighting men, were positioned along the border, and arrows indicated their initial movements. Salva was not a military mind, but it seemed like a massive amount of soldiers to her. Their guard for the trip consisted of maybe 10 Knights at best. However, she noticed that the Ayvartan opposition had no divisions listed anywhere. She chose not to inquire about this.

President Lehner went on to list the Nochtish strengths: 1200 aircraft, nearly 2000 tanks, 550,000 men, countless heavy weapons, 4000 artillery guns divided into howitzers and anti-air, and a  reserve of Mamlakhan troops, as well as a small reserve formation of expatriate Ayvartan volunteers, referred to as the “Kaiserin Trueday” Panzergrenadier Korps.

“That’s what I’m bringing to the table, ladies and gentlemen. Intelligence informed me that the commies disbanded countless formations, so the ‘Ten Million Men’ of the old Empire are no more. Their army is around 1.5 million, at best, and they are scattered around the ten dominances of the Solstice Dominion in groups of 100,000. These troops are poorly trained, poorly equipped, and poorly motivated. No match for our Landsers. My plan is to roll over them as fast as possible with smaller, faster, elite formations, with the best training and equipment that the civilized, free world has to offer. We will destroy half their standing army in a little over three weeks. Anyone have questions?”

Shogun Kagu and Queen Vittoria held their breath for a moment.

“I must first know the status of the coastal supergun in Chayat.” Shogun Kagu said. “In order for the Imperial Navy to succeed in an invasion of Ayvarta by sea, Chayat must be immediately taken. The supergun would give us great pause, however.”

“Our intelligence suggests it was never completed. Y’know, weak commie industry. However, in the event that it was active you could easily outrange it with your naval aviation. Work with me here, Shogun, I am counting on the greatest navy in the world for this plan.” President Lehner said, spreading his arms and laughing a little nervously. “Your honorable seamen must choke off Ayvarta in the east.”

“All of our naval aviation is committed to the fighting in Yu-Kitan,” the Shogun explained, taking an aggravated tone suddenly, “I will need 30 days to redeploy them, and I will not risk the fleet and launch an attack, until they are ready.”

President Lehner grinned nervously. “Chief, you’re kinda breaking my balls here.”

“In order for the necessary build-up to be completed, I too must abstain from the initial attacks.” Queen Vittoria said, speaking over both of the men. “Our forces had been pared down from conflict levels and must be hastily reassembled.”

“So,” President Lehner flapped his coat a little, “So, both of you, 30 days?”

“I do not know about the Faery Queen, but it will be 30 days for me.” Shogun Kagu said.

“Closer to 25 in my case, but might as well make it 30.” Queen Vittoria replied.

“That was not the plan, people.” President Lehner said. “We kinda had a plan going.”

“Due to your secrecy, I have not yet seen this plan except for vague suppositions.” Queen Vittoria snapped back. “And it has proven pointless! Your intentions were leaked to the public. You should have brought us into the planning long ago.”

Throughout the debate, Mary Trueday said nothing. Salvatrice could not even read the expression on her face. She just looked blank, like a doll standing beside the President. Even as he moved or shouted emphatically, she stayed still.

“I suppressed all the leaks. There’s no problem there. Only problem here? You two!”

President Lehner pointed a finger at the Shogun and the Queen.

Shogun Kagu grinned and laughed. “Thirty days, President, or you get nothing at all.”

“Thirty days or you go it alone.” Queen Vittoria added.

“Alright. Ok. You can delay your parts for thirty days. But I can’t delay my part.”

“That is your choice.” Queen Vittoria said.

Princess Salvatrice felt like hiding the table. The leaders were suddenly tense and aggravated. They looked at each other with hateful eyes.

But soon she was relieved, when the meeting was called, and aides delivered to everyone the (now mostly obsolete) Generalplan Suden, 2/3 of which would have to be delayed for thirty days. President Lehner and Mary Trueday stayed in the meeting room and watched everyone leave. Shogun Kagu stomped his way out the door. There were no jovial goodbyes: just a tenuous promise between these great powers, bound only by the thought of favors and spoils. Salvatrice did not even know what her own country got out of it, other than remaining Nocht’s ally.

Queen Vittoria pored over the documents in the private car on the way back to the airport. Salvatrice had never thought of her mother as a military mind, but she seemed to understand everything in the plan far better than Salvatrice ever could. Reading her own copy of the plans, Salvatrice could hardly understand the Nochtish military jargon scrawled across blurry photos and old maps and intelligence communiques. Glossing over most of it, she put it down and sat with her head bowed and her hands across her lap. She and her mother had not spoken for hours. All Salvatrice understood was that soon, it seemed the whole world would be at war. Nothing seemed to contradict this basic fact.

She felt the stress of it weigh on her shoulders. Trapped inside the car, trapped inside this world, trapped beside her mother, and likely, trapped by a new title and by the grave responsibility that awaited a future leader of Lubon, a country at war.

“Mother, what happened to Clarissa? Why isn’t she with you here, instead of me?”

She had to know whether she was Princess or First Princess. She had to know if the fallout of this conflict may affect her as a future queen, or if it would treat her as an unrelated royal, hidden away for all her life.

Queen Vittoria closed the Generalplan Suden documents. She did not smile this time as she looked over her daughter with that powerful countenance and those awe-inspiring green eyes. That motherly mask was replaced by a look of indifference, a blank callous stare of a sort that Vittoria might reserve for a servant or even a pack animal. Those eyes had never looked at Salva in that way.

“I have confined Clarissa to the Convent of Saint Anastasia. She was indiscreet and allowed a man to take advantage of her. To preserve her chastity and reputation, she will serve as a sister there. You are forbidden to see her.”

Her words were like a blow to Salva’s stomach.

She had seen little of Clarissa in her life. She did not even have a desire to see her, prior to hearing this. But now she wanted more than anything to rip her from wherever she was locked. It was stunning to think that a mother could speak so coldly of her child and the abuse she was committing against her.

And in a deep, dark place in Salva’s heart and mind she considered that such a fate could just as easily befall her now. With Clarissa gone, she was indeed the First Princess, the Heiress to the throne. Whichever way this ‘Solstice War’ went she would have to be deeply embedded in it. All of the suffering of Lubon would become her own, inextricable.

“Mother–”

“Not one more word about it.” Queen Vittoria said, sharply and dangerously. “Clarissa admitted her mistake and acceded gracefully to this demand. She will repay her sins. In her place, you must be the light of Lubon. I understand that you may not be ready for this, but I promise you, I will make you ready. I will make you stronger and more powerful even than your sister. I will not commit the same mistakes. You will expand Lubon, its glory, its prestige, its history. I know that you have the potential. And I know you will accept the responsibility.”

Salvatrice was nearly in tears, but she fought them, harder than she had ever fought anything. This was the greatest of all the falsities she would ever have to commit, to keep this contrived strength, to hold shut the hole dug into her heart.

There was only one thing she could say, right now.

“Yes, mother. I am overjoyed to be chosen to succeed you. Viva Lubon.”

15th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Nocht Federation Republic of Tauta – Thurin City

3 Days Before Generalplan Suden Zero Hour

Bercik had gone out to eat, and when he returned to the tenement it was already dark. Dim, intermittent light from terribly old bulbs scarcely lit the hallways. After reaching his floor, he found the door to his room just slightly ajar.

He felt a chill over his body.

Rather than go into his room, Bercik walked a few paces to the next door and knocked on it. He heard some off-key singing and a few strings of violin play, and knocked louder. Then he heard the door chain clinking, and Kirsten opened up for him, positively beaming when he saw who it was. Kirsten was a young guy, barely twenty, with a soft face and with blonde hair long and a little curly, wrapped up with a piece of old tablecloth into a messy ponytail; Bercik called him “kid” in his head, but he wasn’t that much older that such a thing was warranted. Kirsten seemed quite stricken with him that night, staring at his face. He fidgeted a little with the straps of his overalls and whistled while staring.

“Mr. Scheldt, wow! It’s pretty amazing what a little grooming can do.” He said.

Puzzled, Bercik reached up to his face and stroked his chin with one hand. He had shaved his beard off, but he didn’t think it made that much of a difference. “Just call me Bercik. Kirsten, did anyone come into my room?”

Kirsten looked over Bercik’s shoulder in confusion. “I’m not sure Mr. Bercik–”

Just Bercik, please.”

“I was practicing my violin so I didn’t hear anything.” Kirsten replied.

“I see. Could I borrow that loose pipe from your sink?”

Kirsten nodded his head, and pulled the pipe loose from below his sink himself. It was as long as a baseball bat when out, and once you knocked it loose from the sink you could pull it right from the floor and have yourself a nice beatstick.

He handed the object nonchalantly to Bercik with a big beaming look on his face.

Apparently discerning what Bercik planned to do, he asked, “Do you need backup?”

Bercik raised an eyebrow and looked Kirsten over. He didn’t look like much of a fighter.

“You can go running for help if anything happens.” He said.

Kirsten crossed his arms and looked satisfied with this arrangement.

A few paces over, they stacked up in front of Bercik’s door. Bercik held up the pipe, and Kirsten pushed open the door with a delicate tip. Since he was already badly in debt, Bercik never left his lights on, so with only the dim hallway lights filtering into the room, and their bodies mostly in the way, they could see nothing inside. It was almost pitch black. Kirsten peered in around Bercik’s side as he walked into the room, ready to swing at anybody. A few steps in, they turned on the light bulb, and found nobody inside. Everything looked exactly as it had been left. But Bercik would not allow himself relief yet. He handed the pipe to Kirsten and pulled out his locked chest. He opened it, and found his few clothes folded inside, as well as his typewriter and paper. Nothing had been touched there. He lifted his mattress from the bed-frame. Nothing.

“Perhaps you just let the door a little open. Common mistakes with these old doors.”

“Nah.” Bercik said. “I don’t, not anymore. I got too much to lose from that.”

They looked over the room for a few minutes but found no signs of tampering.

“Wait.”

Bercik felt compelled to look at his secret hiding place under his sink. He pulled back the boards.

There was something wedged in there. And he was sure he’d gotten rid of all his documents.

He pulled out an envelope, a fairly fresh one, thick with documents, just like the ones he used to hide there. This one, was stamped with a date, 18th AG-30, three days in the future. Bercik closed the door, lacking the presence of mind at the moment to cast Kirsten out of the room first, he ripped open the enveloped and pulled loose the documents. Across the front of a cardboard folder, the words Generalplan Suden had been written hastily in a pen. All of the pages Bercik thumbed through were reproductions. They were photostats of all the documents.

This was big stuff; Bercik felt his stomach turn as he saw the details of troop formations, the dispositions of all the countries involved, the weaponry that would be used. They had a timetable, Messiah’s sake! Eight months, starting in three days.

A war to ‘end the threat of communism,’ between all of the world’s major powers.

“This is worse than I imagined.” Bercik whispered to himself. Kirsten grew alert.

Along with the folder, Bercik found a crisp, folded letter. From inside the letter, once unfolded, slid over a couple of 1000 Mark bills, spilling onto the floor. Kirsten stifled a gasp, physically covering his mouth when he saw the money. It was several times their rent. He picked them up and looked at them with disbelief, while Bercik tried to read the letter, but found himself foiled by the handwriting.

“I can barely make this out.” Bercik said.

Kirsten’s hand shot up into the air like he was in a classroom. “I could try.”

Worth a shot; Bercik handed over the letter. Kirsten unfolded it again and looked it over. Bercik took the money from his hands and began counting it. Though this was a simple task, he was so dumbstruck by the amount that he counted and recounted the few bills, unable to comprehend the vast amount that they added up to. He held them up to the light bulb, and they looked real enough.

“My dear friend,” Kirsten began, “It appears that I was right, and we were too close. We have no choice now but to complete our work, you and I. My labors now are complete: you now truly have all the information I can get. I will pay dearly for my role in this, but I do so with the conscience that history will absolve me, and that you will a champion of history, when you help end this war.”

Kirsten gulped loudly, and continued. “You should prepare to leave immediately.”

“I guess that is why I needed 5000 marks.” Bercik bitterly said.

“So you’re not with the mob? I thought you were a gangster, not whatever this is.”

Bercik burst out laughing suddenly. Kirsten’s face turned red and he crossed his arms.

“Of course I’m not with the mob. Don’t you read the newspaper?”

“I don’t read them! I deliver them! I would be fired if I cracked open the bundles.”

“Messiah’s sake.” Bercik shook his head. It was so absurd!

Sitting in his room like this, Bercik felt strangely amused. After Hans had rejected his story he had felt the wind knocked from his guts. For months he had given every part of himself to cover this story, and in an instant he had nothing anymore. His world had collapsed and he walked in a void. But then he had decided to turn it around. He shaved his beard, he changed out of his suit, and he got a good night’s sleep. He had almost been ready to give everything up and get a factory job or go back to covering scandals in the cabaret world or something; but now he held in his hands the whole truth again. Was this fate inescapable? How could he fulfill the wishes of his mystery benefactor? The Voice was right, of course. If he released this Generalplan Suden to the public all at once then its meaning would simply be distorted, or its context embellished. It could be false: after all it was just a folder of hasty photostats. Bercik himself would surely go to jail, or worse. He could not stop the war in Nocht.

In Nocht; but perhaps there was a place where this information could be used.

Bercik stared at the marks in his hand and got a very crazy idea percolating in his head.

“Kirsten, do you want to go travelling?” He asked suddenly. “I’ll pay for us both.”

Kirsten’s eyes wandered and he rubbed his arm. “I’m not sure the company would take well to it.”

“Leave them a note saying you’ve eloped or something. They’ll understand.”

“Well, alright then. Truth be told, I had wanted to ask you if I could join the mob too.”

“Be serious here already Kirsten; I’m not with the mob!”

“Well, I know now! But I didn’t before. I just wanted to do something snazzy.”

“Here’s your consolation prize.” Bercik grabbed him by the shoulders. “We’re taking the shady barges down to Ayvarta. We’re showing them these papers. Along the way I will buy you a didgeridoo or something. How’s that sound?”

“Better than delivering newspapers.” Kirsten replied, gently pulling Bercik’s hands off him.

In that bizarre instant, their covenant was sealed. At all costs, they had to make it south.

? ? ? — ??? ??? ???

Woodland separated Mamlakha and Ayvarta, and nobody believed that a large force could push through that rough terrain. Nocht, however, was already at the edge of the wood, waiting for a critical message. Leading the expedition was the 8th Panzer Division under Brigadier-General Dreschner. He had accomplished the task of penetrating the Janna woods by employing light tanks, assault guns and half-tracks exclusively, and leaving behind the heaviest of his Panzers and much of his artillery, save for a selection of mountain guns that could be disassembled and ferried in his supply trucks. Well after the attack by the light forces was underway, his heavy guns and medium tanks would join to deliver the decisive blow. However, he expected that with the element of surprise, the initial attack would be enough to scatter the communist border defense.

Even his own Befehlspanzer was left behind. Instead, a radio truck was assigned to him. A new driver and radio operator awaited him there, and they would be joining him for the rest of the conflict, all eight scheduled months of it. Dreschner rode a scout car through the wood to meet with his own forces at the front before the critical hour, and to take his place in the radio truck. He dismounted the light car, under the cover of thick trees and uneven terrain. He found his half-tracked truck on a wooded hill overlooking a three-meter drop down onto the next tank in line. Dotted with hills and thick with trees; but his forces had crossed it all. Even now he was making history with his 8th PzD.

He walked jovially along the edge of his truck, and came around the back to find a woman sitting on the bed with her feet dangling from it. She was a skinny and messy-haired girl with a small, sleek pair of glasses, dressed in the gray Landser uniform. She was issued no weapons. Instead, she held in her hands a strange cheaply-printed book, which she nearly had her nose into. Dreschner stood across from her, wondering when she would deign to notice him. He cleared his throat, and eventually put his hand on the book and pulled it down.

“Good morning. Signals officer Schicksal, I presume?” He asked sternly.

Karla Schicksal blinked, and then nearly jumped. “Yes sir! Sorry sir!”

She saluted him, her hand shaking.

Dreschner raised his hand over his hooked nose in consternation.

“What is that? What were you reading?” He asked.

“It is a pulp book, sir! It is The Terror of the Saucer Men, sir!” Schicksal replied.

The Terror of the Saucer Men?”

“It is science fiction sir. First published in 2028 in Baffling Stories magazine–”

“Just, tell me what it is about. Why are you so interested in it?”

“Yes sir! It is a fictional story about a species of evil green men from the bowels of Space, who fly in metal saucers, and who have come to terrorize and colonize Nocht, sir! They are all linked by a powerful hive conscious, and work in terrifying cohesion, sir. Their orthodoxy and single-mindedness helps them to conquer the fragmented races of Aer, sir. It is very horrifying to consider!”

Dreschner looked at her critically, and she shrank away a little, putting on a nervous face.

“You can read your funny books during your breaks.” He said. “Put it away now.”

“Sir, yes sir!”

Schicksal gently folded the book closed and slipped it into her coat.

Dreschner climbed into the back of the truck, and Schicksal stood up from the edge and followed him deferringly about as he inspected it. There was a very large radio unit, the size of an ice box, under a table installed on one side of the bed. Armored walls protected the equipment, and a tarp overhead kept out the elements. They had a Norgler machine gun in case of emergency, and a bench along the wall opposite the machine gun gave them a place to sit, and, god forbid, sleep in. Dreschner was not well acquainted with the radio equipment.

“What model is this, and do you think you can operate it well?”

“It’s a Funk Frei-Angebot 30!” Schicksal exclaimed suddenly, as though she had been ready to answer the question since Dreschner first laid eyes on the machine. “These were put into frontline service just this year. They are state of the art radios, we could talk to people across Mamlakha with these! Well, perhaps not that far, but close, in good conditions. I can certainly make use of it.”

“Well, I’m glad someone understands these.” Dreschner said with a grin.

Clipping sounds of a small engine became audible behind them. This puzzled the Brigadier-General, since he was not expecting anyone else to arrive via private car, especially not into this wood. Dreschner and Schicksal both turned around and saw the new car arrive, and a young woman dismount and approach. Dark-haired, with rich brown skin and green eyes, and wearing a dress. It was Kaiserin Mary Trueday of Ayvarta. Dreschner was taken aback by her arrival. He did not quite know what to make of, or how to treat, a royal lady without country. Ostensibly she had a lot to gain from their operations, but it was never instilled in him that she required the deference he reserved for Nocht’s leaders.

“Greetings,” Dreschner said, taking no particular tone. “What can I do for you?”

Schicksal was useless in this. She froze stiff and stood awkwardly behind Dreschner.

“I simply wished to offer you a benediction, as you liberate my land,” the Empress replied.

“I am here because Nocht’s soldiers need expert direction in the coming days.” Dreschner said. “I am here to make history, and earn us glory and respect. Forgive me, milady, but I am not particularly invested in liberating anything or anyone.”

Mary Trueday smiled. It was a puzzling smile. Dreschner felt like he could not tell what the expression truly meant, like there was a subtext both making itself known but also unreadable. There was something about Trueday that was off.

“Even so, your actions will do me an invaluable service. I will finally take my rightful place again. You needn’t believe. I will be eternally grateful once I have returned to my throne, and taken my place among my people again.” She said.

“Indeed.” Dreschner replied. He was tiring of her. “So, what is your benediction?”

“I pray to the Messiah to grant you foresight.” Trueday said. “It is the greatest gift a commander could have. And also to warn you, that among the Ayvartans, there will always be at least one commander with a preternatural gift for–”

Another new noise interrupted them. Schicksal hurried to her seat, and donned a headset.

“Orders from Oberkommando. It is Zero Hour. We have been activated for attack.” She said.

Dreschner nodded. He had scarcely paid any attention to Trueday and her words were annihilated from his mind now. Finally the time for action had come. He was becoming restless. “Well, Empress, I thank you for your visit. We must make haste.”

Mary Trueday smiled that eerie smile again, with that doll-like face and those eyes.

She stood and watched, as across the forest the engines of various war machines rumbled to a start, and readied themselves to charge into the land that she had been ejected from as a child, and upon which she gazed dispassionately now as an adult.

18th of the Aster’s Gloom — Generalplan Suden Zero Hour

Beginning of the Solstice War.

* * *

NEXT CHAPTER in Generalplan Suden — The Councils Divided

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