This chapter contains mentions of violence, torture, wounds, suicide and suicidal ideation, corpses, and brief descriptions of illness and abuse.
58th of the Hazel’s Frost, 2030 D.C.E
Ayvarta, Solstice — Northwestern Desert, Cavalryman’s Rock
A trail of red dust followed a small convoy as it moved through the desert.
At the head of the convoy, a Hobgoblin tank brandished its 76mm gun, turning it on each dune as if expecting a counterpart to trundle out in anger. Behind it, two smaller Kobold scout tanks equipped with anti-aircraft autocannons watched the skies. At the far end of the convoy were three additional Kobolds. And between them all was a Gbahali half-track with a special housing in the back, air-conditioned and with its own water supply. Alongside the Gbahali was one truck with food, gas and other supplies just in case.
Solstice was several kilometers behind them. They traveled for hours through seemingly empty desert. There were few landmarks along the path. At the Oasis of Haath the convoy startled several desert creatures, but did not slow. Through the Sea of Sarstra they stormed past a camp of Hadir nomads, all of whom stood from their tents and carpets, reined their horses and prepared, in a panic, to defend themselves. But they were ignored. It was more their fear of heavy machinery than their understanding of the situation that led them to react. In fact, the convoy hardly acknowledged them.
Following a bend in the Qural river they finally came upon a vast stretch of flat wasteland on which stood their destination. There was only one visible landmark framed by the parched earth around it. Cavalryman’s Rock was a massive, flat-topped landform, composed largely of ruddy stone and named for its resemblance to a cavalryman’s traditional hat. The Rock was steep-faced and the size of a castle.
At the Rock the tanks split up, three kobolds to the left flank and two to the right, still watching the skies for potential air attack, while the Hobgoblin stood sentinel over the half-track and truck. They drove around the Rock and parked close to the red-brown rock for what little cover it offered. From the back of the truck three soldiers armed with Rasha submachine guns and approached a featureless portion of the Rock.
Three more soldiers exited the back of the Gbahali. They very briefly scouted the featureless desert around them and once satisfied they ushered Premier Daksha Kansal out of the Half-Track. She was dressed in a business-like waistcoat suit, and unarmed. It was a different feeling than her old excursions with her paramilitaries. She was a civilian leader; the head of the Government in general, not just the military forces.
Soon as her feet hit the sand, three of the soldiers closed protectively around her, armed with a new, shortened version of the otherwise quite long and quite old bundu bolt action rifle, while the remaining soldiers uncovered a false wall and scouted the tunnel that lay behind it. Moments later, one of them returned and signaled the rest to move.
Daksha and her retinue ran toward to the tunnel, eager to see what awaited inside.
She had come “alone,” with no other officials or military officers, only a small retinue of bodyguards. This had been the request of the scientist currently in charge of the site.
Under normal circumstances she would have objected and brought Cadao and other advisers. However, she knew, trusted, and in fact, appointed the custodian of the Rock.
More specifically, the new custodian of the strange quarters found inside the Rock.
As bizarre as all of this seemed, the SIVIRA had already done half a month’s worth of work sorting out this mystery, and Daksha thought she knew what to expect from the investigation. But Cavalryman’s Rock was the strangest part in a mundane drama that had unfolded within Solstice after two earthshaking events. First, Daksha herself ascended to the Premiership after the dissolution of the Council. Then came Madiha’s battle in Rangda against Mansa’s traitorous forces. Owing to this second event, Daksha purged several associates of Mansa’s from the Party, arresting and interrogating them.
Since both Mansas had been killed in Rangda, this was all they could do now to try to puzzle out the extent of their vile influence: what they stole and the total damage.
Daksha left this task in the hand of Halani Kuracha and soon everybody was talking.
Mansa had several ties to other sources of corruption around the Socialist Dominances of Solstice. He was tied to Gowon the smuggler, who used his military position far in the South to try to enrich himself with illegal mining operations. Mansa was found to be tied to several foreign scientists who had been granted stay in Ayvarta for scientific reasons and were now found to have been aiding Mansa in hoarding historical objects for himself. All of these people who could be found were also arrested and interrogated.
Though a few tribes of nomads were implicated in the investigation, Daksha opted not to harass them. Their nature in such matters was purely mercenary and forgivable. Solstice was better served being graceful around these unincorporated peoples for the moment.
In fact, the bulk of the investigation’s time was soon taken up not by people but by places. In addition to clandestine connections Mansa was found to have possessed numerous properties. Though in communist Ayvarta nobody could own property, buildings and estates and parcels of land could be given purposes. In his official capacity, Mansa assigned disclosed and undisclosed uses to over two dozens sites around the country and as arbiter of their affairs assigned numerous cronies to watch over and work in them.
These were associated with his various dealings. Madiha Nakar testified to what she knew of Mansa’s business, including his appropriation of Imperial artifacts. Many of his properties were either mining sites or training camps, mustering yards and discrete logistics and warehousing for his non-union crews. Mansa was digging everywhere, and he was using his official power under the table to do it and over the table to cover it up.
In all of this, however, the most curious discovery was one undisclosed site found by directly interrogating Mansa’s subordinates. Cavalryman’s Rock had apparently been dug into and used as a special base of operations for Mansa’s archeological team. This seemed far too dramatic: all of his other properties were warehouses and abandoned estates, shabby and forgotten places that nobody was supposed to occupy. Hollowing out a giant rock to hide inside seemed far too whimsical, but it turned out to be true.
Daksha was seeing it for herself for the first time. She had organized a small group to investigate the site, but like all of the other properties, she had never visited it. After all, why would she visit every old warehouse on the list? This conspiracy, while large, was purely borne of greed and eccentricity and did not constitute some grand happening that required the Premier’s attention. Because the staff Mansa assigned to the Rock were civilian scientists, Daksha sent loyal socialist scientists to the Rock (along with many armed guards) to investigate and confiscate whatever they happened to find there.
That should have been the end of that. Except that it was clearly not now.
She had received an urgent message, and she believed it serious enough to heed.
Smooth tunnels had been bored through the Rock using heavy equipment, and lamps had been strung up. Diesel power generators had been wheeled in and hooked up to a system that pumped water up from the underground river, as well as powered several fans, in about a dozen white-walled rooms and hallways that had been built into the complex. A few of the rooms were even sterilized and sealed behind glass doors.
It was a laboratory, Daksha could even smell the chemicals as she walked by.
Mansa’s staff had been cleared out. In every room there were green and beige uniformed Army engineers and assault guards. Many were waiting around for assignments, playing cards or games and cracking open rations in what must have been their dozenth day stuck in here. When Daksha walked past they stood in sudden attention, saluting her.
Then she found what seemed like a large hub room in the middle of the complex.
She was at long last greeted by her assigned agent in this investigation.
“Premier, did you bring the peanuts and jerky? I haven’t eaten in a day.”
She whimpered pathetically and dragged her feet close to Daksha.
“I brought them as you asked. Explain to me why you haven’t eaten?”
“We ran out of green lentils, and that’s the only item in the current ration menu I can stand. I hate the Rotti, it comes with that awful red curry. I hate the spicy items. I would eat the meat items, but I hate sopping wet meat. Everything’s in some infernal curry or chutney.” She raised her hands and clenched her fists in anger. “I just want some jerky.”
Slouching, hands in her coat pockets, tail curled around one leg and with deep black bags under her eyes, Xenon Uwiati looked sincerely pathetic. Her skinny legs trembled, likely from her idiotic self deprivation. Sweat dribbled down her honey-colored face and neck and a hint of exposed chest. Atop her head, her pointy cat-like ears had brown fur the same color as the normal human head of long, silky brown hair she possessed. She was a rare ethnicity, a girl from one of the nomad tribes. Ears and tail marked the extent of her animal-like features: in all other respects she was very much a sorry-looking human.
Xenon turned her sharp green eyes up from the floor and gazed pleadingly at Daksha.
Sighing, Daksha withdrew a special ration pack of pork jerky and handed it to her.
“Thank you, Premier! You have saved my life! You are a merciful ruler!”
“I should shove one of the red curry rations down your neck, box and all.”
“That’s just mean! Look, I need many grams of protein to feed my galaxy-sized brain.”
The scientist squatted down on the floor and nibbled on the jerky in a little ball.
“So that’s where it all goes then.” Daksha said. Xenon was a rather slight woman. “You’re giving me a galaxy-sized headache. I hope you’ve been working and not slacking off.”
She watched the desert cat-girl nibbling on jerky for a moment before letting out a sigh.
“Report?” She shouted, partially in the form of a question.
“Oh! Of course.” Xenon pocketed the jerky and stood back up, dusting off her coat. “Of course, I did call you here for that! I’ve got some interesting news and some bad news.”
“Interesting first.” Daksha said.
“Oh, I wasn’t asking you to determine the order. Here you go.”
She went across the room and picked up a radio set the size of a lunchbox.
Lugging it back the other way, she laid it at Daksha’s feet and squatted near it.
“Tune that to the frequency I scratched into the back of the plastic.”
Daksha squatted alongside Xenon, looked in the back of the radio and turned the knob.
There was a brief rumbling noise. Behind them what had at first glance been another forgettable white-paneled wall slid open to reveal a hidden room. There were stairs clearly descending underground. Every other room Daksha had visited had been erected at ground level on a fairly even plane. This was the first hint at a much large complex.
“After the Akjer incident every investigator became very fond of searching for secret rooms, so we kept our eyes open for them. We found this one relatively easily, because we had a scientist on duty who kept fiddling with the radio for no good reason.”
“By any chance was this scientist a desert cat-kin?” Daksha asked pointedly.
“Yes, it was me.” Her cat-like subordinate sighed and looked embarrassed.
She then stood up from the ground and descended the stairs, nonchalant, hands in her coat pockets, tail gently swaying behind her. Daksha followed after her, looking around the hub area as if with new eyes. This broader, taller room was connected to every other part of the facility at some point. Tables and chairs had been pushed off to the side by the investigators, but this had assuredly been some kind of feeding or recreation room. If there was one secret room connected to this hub, there were probably one or two more.
“We found over thirty people here. Most were fighters loyal to Mansa and a few others were just laborers. We caught them by surprise, they seemed almost completely cut off from the world and largely incoherent in their behaviors. But there were more people than that. Something troubling happened here Premier. But first, let me show this.”
At the bottom of the stairs was the first sign of that “something troubling.” Hidden behind that secret door was a vast room deep underground that tapped into the water flowing beneath the desert. There was a series of pumps and reservoirs to collect and store water, similar to others that Daksha had seen elsewhere in the facility. There were two incongruous sights: one was a massive machine the length of a banquet table, composed of numerous water-filled glass tubes etched with numbers and ruler markings, and various valves and levers that controlled the flow of water into them.
And the second, far more alarming than the fancy plumbing, was a stack of body bags.
“What are those bodies doing there?” Daksha asked, outraged at the sight.
“We didn’t know what to do with them. They died of some horrific illness. I could show you what they look like but they are barely recognizable as human remains now.”
Xenon squatted on the floor and hugged her own knees and nibbled on her own thumb.
“It was very scary Premier, when we found these people. They had quarantined them in this room and left them to die here like they were monsters. When we found them there was no hope for them. And they did look like monsters when we found them but still — it was disturbing. We were scared at first, but later we packed up the bodies while wearing gas masks and rubber suits, and sterilized the place. Then I noticed this thing.”
From her shaking position close to the ground the scientist stretched her arm to point at the machine around them. Daksha couldn’t blame her for forgetting to tinker with some fancy plumbing when there were corpses around. She also wouldn’t blame her for tampering with a crime scene, if the state of the corpses seemed wracked with illness. Nothing could be discerned from the closed bags. With her attention drawn to it, the room did smell faintly of sterilizing gas and bleach and such things — and not like death.
All of that, however, now proved secondary to understanding the machine’s purpose.
On closer inspection, Daksha thought she figured out what kind of machine it was.
“This is a water calculator, isn’t it?” Daksha said. “You do math with it.”
She did not know exactly what type of math — she was not like Xenon, who had changed her name to the chemical element upon graduating from university with some of the highest honors ever seen in the history of Solstice. She was a miracle girl whom Daksha could not match up to. Nevertheless, Daksha knew just enough science to converse.
Xenon’s cat-like ears perked up and she ceased nibbling on her finger. “Yes, it’s among the biggest I’ve ever seen. When I realized what it was, I was stunned by the complexity of calculations that they must have been trying to do in this facility. They’re limited to certain kinds of maths, but invaluable for the tasks they’re designed to tackle. And so I found myself returning to this room again and again despite the presence of the bodies.”
She gave one last trembling look at the stack of corpse bags before standing up, turning around and walking out of the room again. Daksha followed her. Xenon was an eccentric person, whimsical in personal habits and with several special needs. However, that brain which she so richly fed with fat and meat, was an invaluable asset. Daksha wagered Xenon could probably do as much math as that machine, and all in her own head.
To think she had found her trying to enlist in the military! It would’ve been a waste.
Back upstairs in the hub room, Xenon tinkered with the radio, closing one door and opening another. She nonchalantly turned to that passage and made her way into it without saying a word and Daksha continued to follow her. Down a much shorter flight of stairs they found another white-walled room with a sickening display. There were a variety of instruments and two armored, locked vaults big enough to be rooms. Then there was a glass window lined with metal plates. This window offered a glimpse into an adjacent room in which resided three decaying corpses, seemingly unmoved. Each one had exactly one head wound. They huddled around an altar upon which there was a metallic orb-shaped object that seemed to have been vaguely split down the middle. Several cables and mechanical instruments were attached to this enigmatic object.
Daksha felt bile rising to her throat at the sight of the mutilated dead.
“What is the meaning of this? Why have these bodies not been collected?”
Her scientist companion crossed her arms and stood on one leg, crossing the other over.
She stared through the glass, rubbing her hand despondently upon its surface.
Though clearly upset by the sight, her eyes did not waver and she did not blink.
In a calm, matter of fact sort of voice, she began to explain herself.
“Well, given the state we found them in, I suspected the cause of death this time was not man’s inhumanity to man but rather a rare energy called ‘ionizing radiation’. This room is shielded from it by the plates on the walls, but that room would burn a piece of toast black. If toast reacted to ionizing radiation by turning black, that is. I don’t think it–”
In truth Daksha did not understand. She deferred to the scientist’s judgment.
Gazing once more upon the corpses, she shook her head.
It felt like she had left her precious S.D.S. and walked into another country altogether.
This was the sort of country Mansa was running in secret.
To capitalists and imperialists and the feckless liberals who supported them, this was the meaning behind opportunity, individual responsibility, and all of those other slogans they rallied behind. They had the individual opportunity and responsibility to be used up. In his obsession with the Empire, Mansa sent these brilliant minds to death.
“What happened here?” Daksha asked herself aloud. It felt surreal.
Xenon did not pick up on her tone and quickly formulated a thorough response.
“I think, if I were to piece the last days of this facility together, that the culmination of various experiments led the armed guards to turn against the scientists. Collectively, all of them were ill to various degrees. I think their food or air became contaminated. The guards did their best to isolate every experiment and every person involved. There was a air system that had been blown out when we got here: I think they staged some kind of drastic explosion that vented all the contaminants out of the Rock. Everyone we found was malnourished and most were docile. Some were nearly catatonic. But these three bodies here still look much more human than the ones we found in the water room.”
Daksha shuddered to think what those other bodies looked like if that was true.
“How do we know it’s safe in here?” She asked.
“I used a Ligier counter and a survey meter on each room. They’re clean except for the one behind the shielding. I think something dramatic happened in there.” Xenon said.
“How did this place operate?” Daksha asked aloud, almost to herself. She was shocked.
Again, Xenon did not seem able to read her tone and answered her matter-of-factually.
“We don’t know. Mansa obviously supported them financially, but it seemed a lot of them were here for the science moreso than for anything else. It may remain a mystery.”
Daksha’s hatred of Mansa burned ever brighter. Thank God that he was dead.
“I thought this place would be an archeological site for Imperial artefacts.” Daksha said, shaking her head. “This is like something out of a Northerner pulp book. Science fiction.”
“There is an imperial artifact here.” Xenon said.
Daksha felt a sudden shock of anxiety to her heart. “Do I want to know what it is?”
“You do. It is very important. Perhaps the most important thing in this desert.”
Xenon, still bouncing around on one leg, made her way to the vault.
It was already unlocked, so she turned the lever and then feebly, slowly pulled on it.
Eventually Daksha joined in, and together they unveiled a room full of glass cases.
There were ores inside. A few jagged, messy conglomerate rocks. Some processed stuff.
The scientist carefully donned an armored glove taken from a nearby shelf.
Very thin sheets of a shiny grey metal adorned it.
She set the foot she had been crossing up back down on the ground and straightened up.
Using the hand protected by the glove, she reached into one of the unassuming cases.
“I’ve tested it several times, gambling my own life. I think this is safe.”
In her hands she now held a very dark cubic object.
Tiny, dull veins of purple ran across its otherwise smooth, perfectly cut surfaces.
“Doctor Vante, over there,” She nodded her head in the direction of the corpses, “he called this ‘Agarthicite’ after the myth of the city inside of a hollow Aer. This particular piece was found in the Kinywa mine that the traitor Gowon was mining illegally.”
She held out the object to Daksha, assuring her that it was safe.
Daksha grasped it in her bare hands. It was smooth, completely smooth, and vaguely warm. She felt something of a thrum or a pulse, like a tiny little animal breathing.
“This is an Imperial Artifact?” Daksha asked in disbelief.
“According to Dr. Vante’s notes, there are historical accounts of the mineral playing some kind of ceremonial or ritual role within the occult beliefs of the last few Emperors.”
“Turn it over in your fingers, create friction.” The scientist instructed her.
Curiously enough she turned her head away from Daksha, averting her gaze.
Daksha squeezed the stone gently, rubbing her fingers over it. She could see the oils in her hands making impressions of her fingers upon it. But those impressions seemed to disappear almost instantly. There was a brief, minuscule spark and the stone began to glow a dim purple on its outer edges, but brighter on the inside. It was as if the outer surface of the mineral contained a light within. Like a torch, cradled in the stone.
Xenon put a hand up to her own forehead. She seemed suddenly uncomfortable.
“Are you okay?” Daksha asked. She felt a rush of fear that this was the ‘ionizing radiation’ that Xenon had alluded to before, though Daksha did not know what that actually meant.
“Agarthicite,” she continued explaining, with some difficulty. “It has three states. When I gave it to you it was inert. Now it is in a stage where it is actually storing a very tiny amount of potential energy. I call this phase of Agarthicite activation the ‘stressed’ state. Doctor Vante called it the ‘dormant’ state, because he underestimated its behaviors.”
She was straining to speak and breathing heavily. She was clearly affected.
“Xenon, is this thing making you sick?” Daksha asked in a commanding tone of voice.
“I can only speculate, but I think Agarthicite in all states generates a theoretical waveform that disrupts the brains of people with a special neurophysiology.”
Daksha herself was unaffected by the Agarthicite, but Xenon was clearly suffering.
“Hold it up to me–”
“Premier, hold it up to me for a moment and then put it away.”
Daksha grit her teeth but the cat was serious. She must have thought this was important.
Despite her reservations, Daksha thrust the Agarthicite in front of Xenon.
In the next instant, her eyes turned cold and dull, and she stared intently at the rock.
She was almost limp; she responded as if she had fallen into a trance.
Daksha put the Agarthicite into her pocket, hoping it would not burn through.
It settled there, gently, thrumming and seemingly harmless.
Xenon regained control of her faculties and withdrew from her pocket a little metal clip that she put on her hair. It was deep grey and very shiny and much like her glove.
“Forgive me, Premier, I wanted to illustrate these properties. It reminds one of the testimony of Madiha Nakar, doesn’t it? She said that Mansa carried a strange object of imperial make, a cube that caused discomfort. I believe Agarthicite is this object.”
Every top level official handling Mansa’s business had access to Madiha’s testimony about her capture and torture at the hands of the old councilman. It was a classified but valuable source. Not every investigator could have access, but everyone Daksha trusted to lead the anti-Mansa cleanup operations had access to most of this information.
A very small subset of them had access to other information in this puzzle too.
Xenon continued demurely, as if cowed by the enormity of what she was saying and afraid of some danger she might incur for saying it. “It is classified information known only to the most important, top-level personnel of the S.D.S, that Madiha Nakar possesses a unique neurophysiology. It was well before my time, but I have read material produced by Doctor Agrawal on Madiha’s specific extrasensory potential. I believe based on all of this evidence that I possess a similar neurophysiology that is obstructed by Agarthicite.”
“So you’re also magic now?” Daksha asked, crossing her arms, exasperated.
“Not magic! You make it sound so childish. It’s E.S.P.” The scientist protested.
“Can you set buildings on fire spontaneously?” Daksha asked.
“No. I believe Madiha Nakar is a special case in that regard.”
“Any other grand revelations?” Daksha said dismissively.
“You may not be impressed, but I think it’s very important. At any rate, as I suspected you are utterly unaffected by Agarthicite because your brain is completely normal.”
“My brain is decidedly not normal.” Daksha said. Intrusive thoughts; suicidal ideation.
Xenon seemed to realize the shift in tone and her tail stood on end.
“Um, anyway, I am now wearing a piece of osmium in my hair.” Xenon pointed out the hair clip she just attached. “Osmium is a very rare metal with a very strange relationship to Agarthicite. It seems to be able to block Agarthicite’s theoretical waves, as well as control other aspect’s of Agarthicite’s behavior and even forcibly induce its inert state.”
She produced a stick of presumably osmium. It was grey and shiny like her glove.
Daksha withdrew the Agarthicite. This time, Xenon could stare at it unharmed.
One tap of the stick and the Agarthicite went back to its near-black, inert state.
“Normally Osmium is extremely rare: one of the rarest metals on Aer. It is normally found exclusively as a trace byproduct of refining platinum ores. Ayvarta consumes maybe 50 kilograms of Osmium a year, for things like high durability electric contacts. Compare this to the untold thousands of tons of iron and copper we use each year.”
In the middle of this explanation Xenon turned around and picked up the jagged, unprocessed compound rock in one of the glass cases. She turned it around to show Daksha. While most of it was the shiny grey metal she had so recently become acquainted with, around the back of it, arranged as a strange growth, there were many perfectly square cubes of Agarthicite stacked together like a child’s block pyramid.
“Agarthicite is found embedded in deposits of pure Osmium that are simply impossible to find elsewhere in nature. Maybe even physically impossible in general. It’s as if some intelligence decided to hide all the Agarthicite inert in its enemy element to stifle it.”
Xenon put the ore back. All of this was incredibly interesting from a purely academic perspective, and Daksha was not opposed to learning it. It was certainly valuable and piqued her curiosity. She would definitely have Xenon continue to study this rock. But she still did not understand its full significance. It was, in some way, poisonous, and it could be used to dull Madiha’s mind (Daksha still denied to herself that Xenon was like Madiha in any way.) None of this seemed to justify Xenon’s level of urgency toward it.
She then remembered there was one more state. Xenon had said there were three.
“Tell me about the third state of Agarthicite. Is that what makes this rock important?”
“Important, dangerous, impossible to explain with physics. Yes indeed.”
She took back the rock Daksha had been holding, and produced a different tool. This one had a battery pack attached, like an electric torch, and a prod on one end. Xenon hid a button within the handle of the device that produced an electric spark inside it, and transferred a jolt of electricity to the tip. She then touched the tip to the Agarthicite.
There was a brief but intense flash of purple and red light.
At once the Agarthicite began to hover above Xenon’s gloved hand.
It circled gently in midair, turning its six surfaces over like a block toyed with by a child.
Xenon smiled. “I call this the kinetic phase of Agarthicite activation. It is producing a miniscule amount of ionizing radiation. It is only a little bit hotter than trying to sunbathe in Solstice, in terms of the radiation you’ll soak up. You see, it appears Agarthicite generates an amount of energy and radiation greater than the energy that triggered it. A tiny jolt makes the Agarthicite float for about an hour. I believe that hellish room over there was an attempt to energize Agarthicite to a greater degree.”
Daksha blinked with disbelief, staring at the rock levitating in front of her.
One small and controlled jolt from a prod and a torchlight battery pack could do this.
And in that other room, how much power did they put into a piece of Agarthicite? Was that room connected to the generators she had seen around the facility? Perhaps they fed the entire facility’s worth of power into the Agarthicite and created a massive surge of this ‘ionizing radiation’ that swept through the base and contaminated everyone.
“Physics cannot describe what Agarthicite does. It should be impossible. It is not as ludicrous as a perpetual motion machine, since it is not moving perpetually. But it is generating impossible amounts of power for the very little energy that it received.”
Daksha had seen many shocking things in this facility, but certainly, this Agarthicite was the most stunning of them. Of course one would need something like that massive water calculator to deal with this phenomenon. Even then, the machine must have felt useless after enough observation of the mineral. Xenon had it right. This was impossible.
However, if they could harness a mineral that could convert a small electrical jolt into an hour of motion– it would make anything possible! It was a miracle energy for socialism!
“Premier, there is one last thing you must know about Agarthicite. Ionizing radiation is a new, poorly understood and deadly energy. Its capacity to do harm was first discovered through the deaths of radium watch makers. They made glow-in-the-dark novelty clocks, but the radium’s energies sickened and killed the workers and the company closed.”
Xenon tapped the Agarthicite with the Osmium stick in the middle of her explanation.
It dropped back down to her osmium-gloved hand.
“Ionizing radiation is the least of our worries with Agarthicite.”
Mysteriously, she walked past Daksha and exited the vault.
Daksha followed her.
She thought to shout at her to be discreet with the mineral, but Xenon had already been in this facility for many days and despite her eccentricities she took science very seriously. She hid the Agarthicite when they exited back to the hub room, but continued on her way, past all the guards, through the tunnels and out into the open desert again.
Soon as Daksha joined her outside, Xenon picked up the Agarthicite and threw it.
She pitched it at a rock. Her throw was limp and clearly untrained, but direct.
Daksha was speechless both from this sudden, insane action, and from its results.
In the instant the Agarthicite hit the rock, Daksha could almost feel a surge of something, like a shockwave that reverberated through her body but had no physical energy with which to push her. There was a bright purple flash, nothing like the dull light given off by the stone in its various harmless energetic states. Around the rock, perceivable reality seemed to collapse. Daksha had come to understand that, to science, everything humans could see was a result of light entering their eyes. In her mind, she thought, the Agarthicite must have warped and bent light to create a brief ripple in the world, a wound in reality itself. In the next instant it was perceptible as a fleeting black dome.
All of this happened in perhaps a second, perhaps even less than that.
Describing it as a perceivable effect and not pure mental fancy, the Agarthicite seemed to swallow up an orb-shaped chunk of the floor, carving out the rock and sand from it.
There was no trace of the mineral whatsoever. It and the matter around it had vanished.
Xenon and Daksha stood side by side staring at this stolen patch of land.
One in disbelief and the other in stern, grim resignation.
“This is the most dangerous property of Agarthicite.” Xenon explained. “Dr. Vante called it the Annihilation Effect or the ‘Circle of Annihilation.’ These were some of his final notes. I was lucky he did not destroy his materials and that the crazed guards did not do so either. Simply put: Agarthicite can convert electrical energy, but it also converts kinetic energy. If enough trauma is inflicted on it, it collapses, taking a sphere of matter with it. I hypothesize that, as with its other behaviors, the size of the sphere is multiplied by the amount of force that was imparted upon the Agarthicite to make it collapse.”
Daksha’s heart was pumping terribly fast. Her chest felt like it would seize up.
That little piece of mineral had made a crater as large as that of a 152mm shell impact.
“So you’re telling me–” Daksha’s voice caught in her throat. “This thing–”
“It could potentially destroy a house, a street, a city, a state, a continent. A planet?”
One brutal thought immediately embedded itself in Daksha’s psyche.
She murmured aloud to herself, her mouth agape, her eyes so wide they teared up.
“It could destroy Nocht.”
Daksha found herself standing in the middle of the desert in a great void of silence.
It was as if she herself had been swallowed in the Agarthicite’s annihilation sphere.
Trapped in this twisted reality where the matters of life and death that she dealt with for the sake of her people, had taken on a macabre new characteristic. She felt like she was quite literally playing with life and death now. Holding a reaper’s scythe that could change the world entirely and utterly in a way that could never be taken back.
“Is Agarthicite exclusive to the Ayvartan continent?” Daksha asked.
Xenon dropped down on her back, whimsically moving her arms and legs over the sand.
Her expression, however, was blank and emotionless.
“No more than Radium is. It’s thanks to Nocht we know about ionizing radiation.”
“So you think Nocht has access to Agarthicite?”
“I want to believe our knowledge of the mineral is in its infancy.”
She wanted to believe. So she did not know, but she probably feared the worst.
Swinging her arms up and down against the sand, Xenon made wings around herself.
“Premier, when I ran away from home, I was greeted in Solstice with fresh clothes, a meal card, room and board. I was taught how to read and allowed into a university. It might not seem like it, but in my own way, I love this country. I want to protect it.”
Her tone of voice was deadly serious. It was graver than she ever heard Xenon speak.
It was almost as if her previous antics had been a reprieve from weeks of bleak thinking.
“If you ask me to, Premier, I will become a monster in the eyes of history.”
She laid her hands over her chest, staring up at the empty sky over the desert.
Around her the wings in the sand framed her body.
“I will be the demon who unleashed Agarthicite onto the world.”
Daksha had heard this kind of speech before. Cadao Chakma, her defense minister, once asked her, during a meeting about logistics, if she would become a monster for turning toy factories into gun factories, putting teenagers behind anti-aircraft guns, and diverting food to soldiers. Daksha had the same answer for Xenon as she did for Cadao.
“Tell the historians I made you do it. I’ll be the monster in your place.” She said.
She would have withdrawn a pistol and threatened the scientist with it.
Just to make it plain that she was the villain and no one else.
But she did not carry a weapon anymore, as Solstice’s civilian leader.
Regardless, Xenon did not seem very relieved by the gesture.
“Everyone will ask why I didn’t turn my back on this when I could. Why I didn’t bury it; Premier, I started to think, during the past week, that Dr. Vante was not betrayed by the guards like I initially suspected. I fancy that perhaps he was afraid and ashamed of what he had done and he tried to stop it. He ended his life to escape the aura of Agarthicite.”
Tears started to build up in her eyes.
“I wanted to end my own life too, but Solstice saved me. I was treated like I mattered.”
Daksha looked down upon the soil, the wasted earth of the rocky desert.
Xenon’s voice was small and weak and broken up. Blown away by the empty winds.
“Premier, I think I can make Agarthicite into a weapon. We can use the sphere of annihilation that it creates to destroy anything. I just need time. Maybe a year, maybe two years, I don’t know. I feel like this black glow will both redeem and curse me.”
Daksha squatted down beside Xenon and petted her head gently.
Her ears folded under Daksha’s hand. For a brief instant she purred gently.
“You don’t need to be redeemed.” Daksha said.
Xenon raised her sleeve over her own eyes and gritted her teeth, sobbing.
This past week, she must have taken it upon herself to become the devil’s assistant and kill millions and billions if necessary, to protect the little patch of earth that she loved.
In the middle of this desert, that lonely city that somehow made itself care about people.
Perhaps, in some other warped history glimpsed within the sphere of annihilation, there was a way to turn back from the black glow and repair this broken world peacefully.
Regardless, they both knew the answer to these questions and dilemmas.
Mansa had indeed made his evil mark on history.
There was simply no way that Agarthicite could now be hidden and forgotten.
Whether it took months or years to develop it, whether another nation struck it first; they both knew this terrifying power was now a passenger to their fates forever on.
Like the knife, like the gun, like the tank. Socialism would make use of it.
It had to.
As she always said, Daksha said again. “I’ll be the monster, Xenon. Not you.”