This story segment contains mild sexual content.
32nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Solstice Dominance – City of Solstice, People’s Peak
Proportional representation amendments had bloated the National Civil Council to over 300 members. Many of them were redundant, created as a successful political stunt to chip away the political power of the more committed socialists in the north to the softer centrists and the ambivalent uncommitted of the south. They were nominated and then voted for by people from their community participating in a cargo cult democracy, and thrust with responsibilities they were not trained to handle, and thus they were pushed into cliques taking convenient stances for particular factions. Adjar and Shaila had the majority of these malleable placeholders, over less populated territories like Jomba.
This was a relatively recent atrocity of the political process, but a damaging one.
The Council had taken many forms over the years. Ever since the agreement that created the Socialist Dominances of Solstice it had warped and changed. It was at the time of its inception an ill defined body – a malformed continuation of the Ayvartan Empire’s administrative districts within a democratic framework and with a socialist mission. It had to work because the alternative was too ugly. Bread, shelter, clothing, for all; Kremina once believed that any society oriented around these principles could not be corrupt, no matter what. She thought she could see the end of the “class struggle” that Daksha had waged.
It was this naivety that led to the slow degradation of their power in the government. All of the veteran revolutionaries were slowly burgled out of their voices and their votes.
In her case, she foolishly agreed to it. She walked into it. She was the biggest fool.
It hurt because Daksha had relied on her.
She had failed them both. But Daksha never held her accountable for it.
While criticizing others she always ignored Kremina’s foolish role in that legal coup.
Kremina Qote swallowed down all of that regret. She had to move forward now. They had a chance to recover. She would hate herself if she didn’t at least try her best now.
Four days since the fall of Knyskna, four since the Kalu battle, the Council convened.
Due to the size of the Council and the varying political competence of its councilors, not everyone convened together – for most of their business they various factions sent representatives to speak for them. After preliminary negotiations the representatives returned to their cliques, gathered up votes, and then met again with their counterparts and delivered the numbers. Long form votes were rare, and so was the use of the room at the very peak of the People’s Peak, an auditorium that could fit every single councilor.
On the 32nd the room was full, save for a single councilor from Adjar, Arthur Mansa.
“Why isn’t he here?” Daksha asked. Councilman Yuba shook his head.
“He said he has personal business in Tambwe that he had to oversee.” He said.
“It’s good for us that he’s gone, but it’s still strange.” Kremina said.
“His aides will vote for him. It won’t make a difference.” Yuba said. “Even his leadership cannot salvage this now. I wager that is exactly why he has personal business now. He is weak and can’t afford to lose face publically. He knows he will lose here.”
“I hate this!” Daksha said. “What kind of socialists are we that we allowed this?”
“Socialists who tried hard to put democracy ahead of tyranny.” Yuba said sternly.
“I feel it’s about time we put our survival ahead of the ability to vote.” Daksha replied.
They were convened in the hall outside the auditorium.
Daksha was dressed gallantly that night. Kremina had helped her into a new dress uniform, with a peaked cap, the KVW’s red and gold and black jacket and pants, a pair of tall boots. She personally helped tie her long dark hair into an orderly round bun, several white tufts falling around her forehead. Her dark face had been oiled clean and powdered smooth, her lips painted a subtle red. Kremina loved the few little wrinkles around her mouth and eyes, still visible; she loved her lean, tall, broad-shouldered frame, accented by the pants suit and jacket. She could have kissed her; and she had, before they went out in public. The Warden had never looked so dashing and immaculate.
She satisfied herself with adjusting the Warden’s dress tie and holding her hand before they walked through the curtains into the auditorium. Daksha went ahead to the podium.
Surrounded on all sides by the high seats, occupied by men and women of all ages from all the Dominances, Warden Kansal walked to the circular space in the center of the auditorium. In the middle of it all was a lonely podium, upon which Daksha laid down her papers. She raised a pair of spectacles to her eyes, and opened the folder holding her charts and cheat sheets. There was no applause. Much of her audience had come into office having never heard Kansal speak, and knew her only as the head of the extremist KVW.
Normally the loudest voices in the Council were the elected from Adjar and Shaila. Today they were quiet, shattered. Shaila was lost, and barely a quarter of Adjar remained under the tenuous control of the Socialist government. It too would soon be given up.
Adjar and Shaila had the largest concentration of collaborationist-leaning councilors, owing to their large and largely politically disengaged populations. But without the leadership of their clique those councilors were confused. Mansa had abandoned them.
Yuba had been right. They were vulnerable now.
In the chaos of the invasion their petty ambitions could not be countenanced even by the most politically illiterate, and in the face of the violence that had been witnessed in Bada Aso and Knyskna, diplomacy with Noht was seen as treason. Those among them ambivalent about real socialist policy could not dare to speak a counterposition.
Kremina stayed by the curtain, framed by doorway leading into the room. She watched from afar. She had written almost half of the speech, but now Daksha had to deliver it.
Fearlessly Daksha craned her head. There was fire in her voice but a blank expression on her lips and eyes, devoid of the anger and contempt Kremina knew she felt.
“Tonight you will be asked to consider a typical slate of policies, much the same as you have pored over the past few months. Production, development, awareness projects, outreach campaigns. Many of these things sound insignificant, but you will consider them nonetheless. In our socialist democracy, people’s democracy, even these simple things are considered and carefully analyzed. There are a few decisions on the agenda tonight.”
She paused for a moment, as if to create a hole in the air, to then fill it with her sound.
“You will debate on the best course of action to prevent insect-borne epidemics in Tambwe, that were particularly virulent the past few years; you will debate on the presence of gender markers in our state identification papers; you will debate on whether to modify the amount and kinds of food in the citizen’s free canteen meals each day.”
She looked around the room, her eyes scanning from face to face in the crowd.
“You have gathered data on these subjects. You might have papers written to support a small reduction in the meals, such as the removal of an extra piece of flatbread or the reduction of the dried fruit rations, and explain how there is some benefit or another to this action. There will be citizens speaking to you, providing evidence to help educate you. There are a few witnesses waiting outside, hoping to be allowed into this room to speak.”
It was hot in the room, under the spotlights shining from the corners of the auditorium. But Daksha did not sweat. She spoke, loud and strong, her words perfectly pronounced.
“Unlike them, I’m not here to support a position. I do not believe my ideas are up for debate; there is no contra against me other than inviting the death of our nation. To demand I qualify myself with data, to demand that I substantiate myself with strong rhetoric, to tie me to your discourse – is to do nothing short of submitting our people to slavery and our land to Federation hegemony. In Rhinea, far in the north, there is a democratically-elected parliament of intelligent, educated men who strongly debated whether to withhold aggression or to send their citizens here to kill our citizens. We cannot mimic their procedure – to debate as to whether our citizens should defend themselves is a sick task.”
Not a word was spoken against her.
Not a word could be; the entire council was subdued.
“I am here not to support any position, but to outline a series of actions that must be taken effective immediately to preserve the Socialist Dominances of Solstice. If you wish to become something like The Southern Federated State of Solstice under the auspice of the Lehner administration in Rhinea – then continue on your warped course. Should you realize the urgency and pressure upon us, and resolve to survive to see a tomorrow–”
Daksha picked up her speech papers and threw them over her shoulder. They landed on the floor, the soft sound of the sliding papers resonating across the dead silence of the room. From her abrupt pause, she segued into the line items Kremina had prepared for her. She spoke clearly, at a brisk pace, only pausing for a subtle breath between each item.
“Rescind the current civil administration of the military and unify all military resources under a Supreme High Command responsible for drafting strategic military actions, and responsible for administration, logistics and intelligence. This command must be free to wield all of the nation’s military resources without impediment to answer the immediate threat to the people. It must be commanded by experienced military officers.”
“Merge all current separate military formations and organize them into Armies, Corps and Divisions under the Supreme High Command in whatever way is found most efficient.”
“Redeploy all reservists and recruit more troops, either through patriotic awareness or material incentive campaigns or through conscription as a last resort; restock our current divisions, and create new divisions, using new manpower; promote people with military experience to rebuild our officer corps, reintroducing ranks above Major to the armies.”
“Reduce Divisions from Square to more efficient Triangle formations. We can use the disbanded 4th Regiments to assemble new Divisions. To these more efficient formations, reintroduce shelved heavy weapons, including heavy artillery. Organize heavy weapons so that each infantry unit has organic heavy weaponry, including machine guns, while also retaining specialized heavy weaponry units designed to support explicit offensive actions.”
“Reintroduce high training standards and promote professionalism in the armed forces. Instill in our armed forces a respect for their people, a respect for their own role, and an understanding of accountability to their people. In service to this task, invite civil elements to participate alongside our military such as journalists and union liaisons, to open dialog.”
“In service to this task, rebuild our war industry and promote practical innovation of new weapons. Provide our unions the tools to help our war effort and their own communities in the process. Cease production of obsolete weapons and increase production of new designs. Open a dialog with our unions to increase workplace efficiency, safety, security, and bring them into the process of military development at all levels.”
“Rethink the dualized system of distribution – Honors distribution, and the items controlled under the Honors system, must either be expanded or removed. War will surely disrupt it otherwise. Treating it like an alternate currency has never quite worked. My personal recommendation is a voucher incentive system for a wider range of purposes.”
After each bullet point, many councilors in the room cringed and avoided her eyes. In short, the Warden could simply had said “reverse your policy now and completely.”
Never before had so many radical propositions been made at once to the Council.
There was no conclusion.
Daksha unceremoniously left the podium without even a bit of applause.
There was whispering around the room as she stepped away, but mostly silence. Kremina sighed with relief. She had almost expected her to act out at the end of the speech, but Daksha had managed to quell her anger for a moment and keep an appearance of calm throughout. When she passed the curtain, her hand was closed into a shaking fist.
“A room full of fools!” She said emphatically. “All devolving into blank stares as if I were not speaking the standard dialect to them! Children could have paid better attention!”
Kremina held her hands and tried to calm her. Together they waited through the several speeches and witnesses of the night. They sat in a bench, with their backs to the room wall, drinking water and taking complimentary caramels from hospitality bowls. They paced the hallway, up and down. Several hours passed. Then the council began their deliberations.
There was one topic they did not seem to openly debate – the Nochtish invasion. They would hold a vote on it, Yuba assured them as he ran back and forth from his seat and the hallway, checking up on them between each speaker and each vote, reassuring them. There would be a vote. They did not debate it because they were scattered, and because of Daksha’s speech and presence. But there would a vote. And there was a vote, held, collected, counted. Yuba returned one last time to deliver to them the final results to Daksha.
He smiled awkwardly, crossing his arms against his chest. “Inconclusive, I’m afraid.”
Daksha bolted up from the bench. “What the hell do you mean, inconclusive?’
“Inconclusive. There were votes on several of the positions you outlined and none of those line items received either enough support to pass or enough opposition to be shelved.”
Kremina put a hand on Daksha’s shoulder, passively trying to calm and hold her back.
“Yuba, you don’t seem too concerned. You promised results. Please explain.” She said.
“What was important tonight is showing to all those sleeping councilors that there is leadership outside of their factions, and that leadership is stronger than their own.” Yuba said. “There will be another vote. I will start building a coalition to chip away power from Mansa’s, and I can use tonight’s indecision as a starting point. Warden, you will notice, for example–” He withdrew a piece of paper, a voting results report, hastily scribbled up. He pointed to it. “My factions voted in unison for all of your policies. We were only stopped by the mishmash of indecisive votes, all from Adjar, Shaila, Tambwe and Dbagbo.”
Daksha exhaled loudly. She crossed her arms, turned her back, and paced around.
“Victory takes time!” Yuba said amicably. “You do not encircle an enemy in one day. It is a series of actions; you maneuver around them, isolate them, and you capture them.”
“Or you can just destroy them.” Daksha said, her back still turned on the old man.
“Doubtless, you could, if you wanted to.” Yuba said, shrugging with his hands. “But I believe destruction always carries a human cost, both right away, and in the times that come after. Whereas if you lay siege, you may capture prisoners with less yielded blood.”
There was silence in the hall.
Behind them there was the sound of a gavel to end the meeting.
“When is the next vote? I suppose I should be present for it.” Daksha said.
She sighed a little, as if to let off steam from a burning engine.
Kremina rubbed her shoulders affectionately.
Nocht Federation – Republic of Rhinea, Citadel Nocht
President Achim Lehner kept a mirror on the left-hand wall of his office because he thought whenever someone passed by it, he could see through them in the reflection.
He waited at his desk for the day to be officially over, so he could get started on a few of his off-the-clock hobbies. He contemplated looking in the mirror, maybe straightening out his tie, combing his hair again, making sure he looked as sharp as he could; but then he felt foolish for entertaining the thought. Cecilia didn’t need him looking perfect. That mirror had a power, though; he loved that mirror, in a strange, almost religious way.
Throughout the day he met with a dozen different people.
A Helvetian diplomat met briefly to discuss open sea lanes for neutral countries during the war – he saw one of her cheeks in the mirror, contorted, crooked, as though the scowl of a demon hidden in her everyday smile. Two automotive company executives expressed interest putting their factories to work in the production of trucks. On his mirror Lehner saw a twitch in one’s eye and the other fidgeting behind his back with his fingers.
General Braun appeared too. He looked ghoulish every time.
Lehner did not use this mirror for himself. He hated looking at himself in a mirror because he always focused too much on the little things. One slightly off-white hair in his slick, well-combed locks; what seemed like, perhaps, in the right light, a wrinkle in his boyishly handsome profile and smile; a blemish somewhere on his high cheekbones or aquiline nose. A weird bump in the perfect slant of his lean shoulders that he compulsively patted down. He didn’t need that. Mirrors tried to grind you into their own image.
They were made only to show imperfection.
Good tools to keep where others could see them; pernicious to peer into yourself.
Lately he spent a lot of time in the office.
That would have to change soon, but right now there was simply too much to leave up to chance. He needed to be on-hand to make sure everyone was giving a hundred percent. That was the only problem with his beloved egg-heads – they could take care of business, they certainly had the smarts for it, but they often lacked initiative and bravura. So he stayed in the Citadel, toured it every day, dropping in on the offices, issuing encouragement, holding meetings, making charts, suggesting slogans, promoting synergy.
Busy days, busy days all around; he made sure everyone was doing something for him.
Hopefully he would have the time to take a few field trips soon; meet up with folks, tour facilities, get more contributions and donations going. Maybe take Cecilia out to dinner. Unless Mary returned from Ayvarta first; Cecilia knew perfectly that Mary took precedence. After Mary was gone again, though, he would treat her, certainly.
A beeping sound; he picked up the phone.
“I’m ready if you are, doll,” he told his secretary.
“I’m afraid Agatha’s waiting on the line, should I put her through?” She replied.
“I’m never too busy to talk to my wife,” Lehner said, perhaps a little sharply.
Cecilia had no protests – the rules of their game had been established ahead of time.
There was a click on the line and the dulcet voice of Agatha Lehner filled the wires.
Lehner squeezed the receiver with muted anticipation. Agatha was always soft, at first, but she was clearly not calling to small talk. She never called just to tell him about her day or the weather. Lehner quickly found himself on the defensive as she began to probe him.
“No, dear, I don’t think I’ll be back for Givingsday, I’m sorry. I’d have loved to be there, you know I’d have loved to be there, I wanna see you, doll. You know I want to see you and I would see you and hell, I’d do more to you than just see you, if you follow me – but I can’t sweetie. I’d love to but I’m just too busy, and these Generals are turning out to be like children to me, I’ve got to keep wrangling them. Believe me, I’d love to ruffle up that king-size with you. You gotta be patient, ok? I’ve got too much on my plate.”
He listened to the response, sighing internally.
Agatha sounded upset on the phone.
“I thought you had a picture going? I thought you were filming. Had I known you’d be out on Givingsday I might have planned different, but I thought you had a film running?”
Agatha turned from upset to exasperated – she sighed into the phone.
“Oh don’t be so dramatic; no, no, we won’t be doing the military parade together remember I’m doing that one with Mary, showing support for the Ayvartan Empire and all that. After the parade, ok? We’ll have a date before the end of the Frost, I promise.”
Agatha acknowledged and hung up; President Lehner dropped the phone on his desk.
“Had to marry the actress,” He said to himself, “legitimately didn’t see this coming.”
His agenda for the day was mostly complete.
He leaned back, stretched, yawned and meditated. To hell with Agatha and her rotten attitude – it’s not like she could spoil anything for him anyway. Everything but her was going great, and he wouldn’t focus on one miss in a salvo of non-stop, bulls-eye hits.
President Lehner had few political worries.
Thanks to a Congress that in his father’s pocket twenty years prior and in his own pocket now, he was guaranteed an 8-year term in office, with nothing but a perfunctory mid-term review to threaten him. He had already served two. At the ripe age of 34, Lehner had ridden into office on exactly his youth, vibrancy, and seemingly precocious attitude.
Achim Lehner, man of the future! That had been one of his slogans. He positioned himself as a sharper, more flexible man than his opponents. He talked science, he talked statistics; he talked about the transformative power of knowledge, about the electric age reforms he could bring to the government. He would make government smarter, efficient – people liked that. People liked the numbers. Nobody told them the numbers before.
Lehner positioned himself as a smart kid innocent of vice who simply strode into the dance bar and reinvented the Lindenburgh right in front of all the drunk gents.
People liked that!
They liked it enough to give him a crushing victory with 85% of the vote.
They liked it enough to give him a clear mandate for his administration.
Whether he fulfilled that mandate was for journalists and radio jockeys to argue over. It was not his concern. His government was smarter, was more efficient. He had reformed stagnant state enterprises by selling them off; he had reformed “big money” by wrapping it around his finger, making it work for him and not just for itself; he had improved security by ruthlessly crushing overseas opposition in the wars he had inherited.
He had promised to stop those wars, and he did.
He never promised not to have his own.
So there he sat.
All he had to worry was giving his all too friendly secretary a good time.
Citadel Nocht was always gloomy, except when it was outright dark.
Lehner’s office extended artfully out of the citadel structure, and through the dome roof he had a good look at the sky. There was not much to look at now – it was pitch black.
He could not even see the stars.
Outside, he heard the lobby clock strike. He smiled, and waited a few moments.
Ahead of him the doors to the office opened.
A woman entered, closing the door behind her, and smiling with her back to it. She had her long, luxurious blonde hair done up, with some volume on the sides framing her face and a green hairband. On her nose perched a pair of block glasses, and her lips were painted a glossy pink. She had a grey suit jacket and a grey knee-length skirt.
Lehner did not look at her reflection in the mirror.
He already knew the real Cecilia Foss.
“Madame Foss,” Lehner said, in a sultry voice.
She was his wonderful Frankish secretary.
“Bon nuit, President,” She said mischievously.
She approached the desk and leaned forward.
Their lips briefly met, before gracefully parting. She sat across from him, legs up on the desk. He laughed. She grinned. It was always a game between them, nothing more.
She played him.
“Is Haus on a boat yet? I want that man on a goddamn boat.” Lehner said.
Cecilia rolled her eyes a little. “You always want to talk about men in boats lately.”
Lehner laughed. “Unfortunately I can’t fly them down to that god-forsaken rock. Everything I need sent to Ayvarta goes through Cissea and Mamlakha’s one good port; it is fucking dreadful. And with the way Von Sturm has been going at this all backwards I fear we’re not going to snatch Bada Aso’s port in any decent condition. So; Haus, boat?”
“Oui.” Cecilia replied, crossing her arms. “Field Marshal Haus is on his way south.”
“Thank God. I should’ve sent him in first instead of the fucking kindergarten I’ve got.”
Teasingly Lehner pulled off the secretary’s high-heeled shoes and took her feet, kissing the toes over her seamed black tights. She grinned and giggled, running her digits slowly against his mouth. Their eyes locked as he kissed, squeezed and cracked her toes.
“Sad to see little Sturm choking up.” Cecilia said. She had an intoxicating Frank accent that made her every word sound like a sultry temptation. Lehner could listen to her all day. “Everyone thought him a genius. Our youngest general. Too bad for him.”
Lehner raised his head from her feet, having tasted them well. He had a wry expression.
“I’m so disappointed, to be honest.” He squeezed Cecilia’s foot, massaging under the arch, digging in with his thumbs. She flinched, biting her lip, enthralled. Lehner continued. “I can understand Meist and Anschel being useless. Put together they don’t even constitute one vertebra. But Von Sturm had that fire in him, you know? I guess I misjudged him.”
“Hmm,” Cecilia made only a contented noise in response.
“Haus will straighten all that out; he’ll do it. When he gets there in a week or so.”
Unceremoniously he dropped her feet, climbed on his desk and pulled Cecilia up to him by the collar and tie of her shirt, seizing her lips into his own. She threw her arms around his shoulders and pulled back on him, the two of them nearly dropping into a heap on the floor. They hung in a balance, knees on the edge of support, bodies half in the air.
Breathless, clothes askew, lipstick smeared, they pulled briefly back from each other.
“How many hours we got on the itinerary?” Lehner said, grinning, breathing heavy.
“I accommodated myself well.” Cecilia replied. She pulled him back in again.