VI. The Yellow Turban Rebellion
In Draggoneth, Sunday was traditionally a day of fasting and prayer, and so it was on Sunday, at high noon, that the Yellow Turban Rebellion began. In Arad and the outlying villages, Draggonethi ate an early lunch, and did something prescribed by the religion that no one had done for many years: at their meal, they set aside a small portion in honor God. It was lean times in Scande, and it pained them greatly to make that sacrifice, but they knew it was just going to be the first of many. Their suffering would purify them.
Then, these loyal Draggonethi donned yellow turbans. They then visited carefully hidden stockpiles, beneath the desert sands, blindspots in Solidat’s surveillance net, and returned to the city and their villages.
The Solidat were caught unawares; more and more police flooded the streets, armed with Supervolt rifles, to try to suppress the rebellion. The bystanders of Arad were shocked—was someone really doing this? Really trying to revolt against the communists? The blood-curdling war cry of the Draggonethi resounded throughout the desert.
The Solidat realized that it was out of its league, here, and requested help from the local SLCM-Ground garrison; fortunately the nearby presence of the Crucible, SLCM’s officer training academy, guaranteed a strong SLCM response. Dorath Haggard, who was Superintendent at the Crucible obligingly rolled Platinum tanks, Grizzly ISVs, and Julian Infantry Carriers through the city. The revolt had begun at lunchtime, and by dinnertime it looked like it was over.
The Crucible’s Command Center was usually used for wargames and trainings; with all the maps of Arad and markers for troop movements spread in front of him, Haggard could hardly believe that it was used for an actual pacification operation. Sitting deep in a bunker, surrounded by walls of concrete, it he stifled a chuckle at the thought that the rag-tag band of religious zealots could overthrow the most powerful national military in the Web. “The miracles of the path of the Dragon, indeed,” he snorted. “In the end, it is all cheap trickery.” The command bunker was filled with instructors and senior cadets; right now most of them were attending to the details of maintaining martial law. Each officer had been assigned a section of the city, and had their own desk with communications equipment to monitor the situation and command their soldiers. The Crucible was slated for a mainframe computer upgrade just as soon as the Ticonderans were finshed upgrading Central Command, but right now they just had to make do with lots of radios, telephones, and boots on the ground.
Haggard was speaking with Commander Sven Zerekovski, who right now was head Dracoforms instructor. Sven had recently returned from a tower in Ticondera, where he had been nicknamed “The Fist of Gunta” for his role repulsing the Viper incursion into the small town. He had positioned his Ahzam Long Range Attack Dracoform in a perfect sniper’s nest where he fired volley after volley of Luminaire cannon into the Viperese advance.
Sven shook his head and took a drink, his large Gantian hand delicately holding the teacup. His dust grey uniform blended in almost seamlessly with the background of the concrete bunker, save for the large red cloak of a Dracoforms Service Ace. “It’s sad, really,” he said. “I wonder what they were thinking.”
Haggard shrugged. “These rebel types are all foolish romantics,” he said. “Seen one too many contraband capitalist movies where the small, ragtag band defeats the evil empire. Such things only happen in a galaxy far, far away.”
“Did you know they had children in their ranks?” frowned Sven. “Eleven, twelve years old.”
Haggard waved his hand dismissively. “Never met a soldier who wasn’t <i> someone’s </i> child. Even Celiose Cole has a mother.” Haggard pointed to a large scar on his cheek. “Got this fighting Dark Dragons back in the Big One. I was eight.” Then he pointed to his left arm, revealing a discolored patch of skin. “That part of the burn never healed. I was at the business end of a Tacfortress raid. I was a teenager, by then.”
“I have my share of wounds, too,” Sven said. “But, Comrade Haggard…your generation fought war, and my generation fought war…I have a son…should I expect the same for him?”
“He will become a soldier,” nodded Haggard confidently, “and you will be proud of him, I think.” He stopped, and then added perfunctorily, “well, perhaps by then we’ll have conquered capitalism. Tell you one thing, though, I would not want to be Comrade Benetov right about now.” Comrade Benetov was Chief Commissioner of the Solidat; having this sort of minor flare-up happen on his watch would certainly end his career.
Sven frowned, and carefully sipped his tea.
One of the officers swiveled back in his chair; Area 4, responsible for the outlying southern part of the city. “Commandant Haggard,” he said urgently, “I’m getting reports of magitek armor. Multiple contacts.”
“Maybe the damned Fascist Esperians have aided them,” frowned Haggard. His troops were spread out throughout the city to maintain order; they were ill-positioned to fend off a large mechanized assault.
“No,” said the Area 4 commander, “they insist it’s M1190s. GA magitek armor. Piloted by Arad dwarves in yellow turbans.”
Haggard shouted something in reply, but a large explosion outside muffled it as to make it inaudible. “Whatever Gods we don’t believe in damn it all, that was an artillery shell!” he shouted.
The Area 8 commander turned around in his chair, as well. “Sir, my biker scouts are reporting they’ve picked up contacts of Tilly Tracked Assault Guns northeast of here. They’re shelling the city.”
Haggard looked around and his twenty-odd area commanders. “All those who have Grand Army equipment reported in their sectors raise their hands.”
Areas 1-8, the outlying sections of the city, all raised their hand.
“It appears we’re surrounded,” said Haggard.
The Area 8 commander shouted, “I’ve got Leo IIs heading right towards us, Commandant. No King Leos reported.”
“Commander Zerekovski, I think you should get your fellow instructors and the senior cadets together and attempt to put a stop to this,” said Haggard. “All other Area Commanders, I want you to concentrate your forces around the Crucible. If we can combine our forces we can hold out here, in the Crucible, until reinforcements arrive from Auria.”
Auria was where many SLCM soldiers were these days; it was, after all, the staging point for a potential invasion of Truce.
Sven Zerekovski nodded, and put down his tea.
The cockpit controls of a Dracoform were of bewildering complexity, designed to give the pilot maximum control over every aspect of the mecha’s operation. Capitalist pilots, the Scandians like to say, were spoiled by automation.
An Ahzam had excellent sensors, like many Scandian vehicles, and Sven Zerekovski used them to survey the battlefield. GA-built tanks in the north, running hot; he lined one up in his sites and unleashed the white death of triple Luminaire cannon. The Ahzam was deployed only recently, with access to Mysidian Magilyte; with its powerful magitek weaponry, it was a bit of a luxury, but it outranged even the Zog. He swiveled his torso around, to the right, cameras on maximum zoom into the city itself.
Fighting had spilled into Arad; this time, the Yellow Turbans had GA gyrocs, not the needle weapons they had used earlier, and SLCM-Ground was sparing no effort in suppressing them. A Grizzly ISV spewed airburst detonated fragmentation grenades from its automatic launcher; the shrapnel turned the unarmoured turbans into so much chunky salsa. The collateral damage to the ancient stucco house nearby was incidental. A Platinum II tank, outmatched by a Leo, beat a hasty retreat and crushed the civilian in the way. A Julian III APC, lit on fire, its killer emerged from hiding; clearly, a young man, with a bazooka almost the size of his body. Smoke everywhere; SLCM-Ground used lots of smoke, to confuse laser guidance and provide mobile cover, though their own excellent sensors could see through it. The whole city of Arad looked like it was burning as a result.
Shoving such thoughts aside, Zerekovski turned his torso back north. There were not many cadets graduated into the Dracoforms Service each year; it was an elite force, and standards were very high. Nonetheless, he had managed to piece together almost a brigade. The long-range Ahzams, close combat Ryus, and assault model Zogs were holding the perimeter against the tanks. Zerekovski allowed himself a light smile as he narrowly dodged an incoming shell. This was mecha vs. tanks, although he and his men were trained pilots of an elite unit and the Yellow Turbans probably had little more than the tutorial on their tanks. He was a little disappointed—he had hoped for more against GA equipment.
Zerekovski shook his head at the thought. Was this what his enjoyment in life had been reduced to? A transitory thrill from engaging a foe? Target in the center, switch. Target in the center, switch.
Although the Dracoforms were holding, other elements of the Crucible’s defense were not so lucky. Grand Army vehicles had <i> energy shields </i>, big guns, and a full tactical datanet that rivaled even those used by the FTSR. And there were rumors happenings that could only be attributable to magic; a squadron of Valiant bombers that was supposed to run a support mission had been wiped out by a sandstorm.
Was this all there was—hold the line here until you die? For what? For Travin Rumanski? For the League? For Communism?
Zerekovski turned his sites on a Zog, tangling it up on the front with some Leos. It was badly damaged but giving as good as it got, slamming 75 mm electromag shells from its Demolishers into the turrets of the enemy tanks. Its legs didn’t work; with his knowledge of Dracoforms, Zerekovski knew exactly where to place his shot to take the leg off.
Target in center, switch.
The Zog lost its left leg. The pilot was just a sophomore cadet; a more experience pilot might have been able to manipulate the wings and internal gyros to stay balanced on one leg, but someone in just their second year of Dracoform training had no hope. The mecha fell over, and exploded.
He focused on another Dracoform, a Ryu, its crackling supervolt whip kicking dust into the air with static electricity. The whip lashed out and cut through the barrel of a Leo.
Target in center, switch.
The Ryu was not well as well armored as a Zog; the triple Luminaire blast knocked it flat on its front. Zerekovski waited for his weapons to recycle, and let loose another volley to finish off the immobilized Dracoform.
A radio transmission crackled through to life. “Zerekovski, this is Haggard. What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
Zerekovski shook his head. “It’s one war after another,” he said. “Great War, Leviathan War, Ticondera. It has to <i> end </i>, Comrade Haggard. And it’s not going to end with Rumanski; he’s just the superlative exponent of all this.”
“You want your son to know his father died a traitor?”
“Comrade Haggard, if I were you I would review the progress of the battle. Or should I say, the war. While we’ve been defending the Crucible I’m sure the Yellow Turbans have seized control of the outlying towns…it’s what we would teach our cadets to do, anyway.”
Well aware he was soon going to be designated a target, Zerekovski re-evaluated his sniping position, finding a nice, sloping bank that would conceal him from the rest of his company.
“And you think the One Dragon God will end the cycle?” asked Haggard.
“Maybe, maybe not,” said Zerekovski. “But I know that Rumanski will continue it.”
VIII. Dawn: Corruption
After just a few months in the Presidium, Travin Rumanski was distinctly uncomfortable with the crowd he was running with. He much preferred his street gang in the ghetto to the ostensible executive council of the League. Ruvin Ulan, representing Carmen, was somewhat tolerable; the ex-GA Hauptmann was the only one of the lot Travin could stomach. He didn’t actually know anything about the Dragon Dimension, but supposedly he had done some very impressive things in Trianble. Plok Polk was blind and deaf and never seemed to know what was going on.
The Presidium meant in a high tower in Scande, lavishly attended by servants and food eaten with gold-plated implements. He had a hard time enjoying the small talk.
“Yes, yes to these taxes, they will let me make a fine addition to my place in Tantar,” said Lord Bragsworth, the Forest Clanner who claimed to be a noble. He smiled wolfishly, and chuckled, “this government business is quite fine.”
“Indeed it is,” said Allen Bole, from Bleak. “Nothing quite gives me so much satisfaction as cracking down on the smuggling cartels in my home city.”
“Your competition?” asked Rumanski.
“Mr. Rumanski, why do you always have to be such a wet towel?” asked Roberto Repeg, the Presidium representative for Auria. “It’s a new golden age, an age of freedom. Let’s enjoy it. You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Well,” said Travin, longing for a day when he could be rid of such imbeciles, “on my way here I saw something disturbing. I saw two men in a fight, a terrific brawl, but awkward; both were emaciated, neither had eaten in days. At first I assumed that the spat must be over food. Eventually, one was victorious; he was a better fighter, maybe he had fought in the War. Then, he claimed his prize.”
“What?” asked Roberto. “Scraps of meat? A loaf of bread?”
Rumanski shook his head. “The corpse of the other man’s dog.”
“Was that necessary?” asked Bragsworth. “We are <i> eating </i>, Mr. Rumanski.”
“That was out of line,” agreed Roberto. “Look, Mr. Rumanski, we all know things are bad down there. But it’s a transitory phase. The Dragon God knows what the war put us through, and we’re recovering, with the help of foreign investment—“
“What did you give the Guardians?” interrupted Travin. “Mr. Skalice was very pleased with the antipode weapons and other technology, though in his report he asked for the resources to actually mass produce them.”
“My deal with the Guardians benefited the League.”
“And you, Mr. Bragsworth—“
“Lord Bragsworth to you,” interrupted the forest clanner. “I know on the streets such formality doesn’t matter, but—“
“How much did that man, Gavalian, give you for the rights to strip mine our largest known magilyte vein?” said Rumanski. “Am I the only one here not on the payroll of a foreign power?”
“Gentleman, please,” insisted Ruvin Ulan, “we must move on with business. Please,” he gestured to a servant, “let Mr. Krupp in.”
The man from Tasnica was impeccably dressed in a suit and tie, like all the people from Tasnica; Travin’s rough-hewn tunic was clean at least. (Bathing and clean water were a luxury of his position he allowed himself). “Guten tag,” he said, “I am Gunther Krupp, CEO of Saeder-Krupp Industries.”
“Yes, Mr. Krupp, have a seat, we’re pleased to have you here,” said Bragsworth, smiling. In 28 WR Saeder-Krupp was still the largest corporation in the Web, even if it was burdened by legacy costs, weak management; some speculated that S-K was ripe for takeover. But even they still had plenty of money to throw around, and plenty of interest in the Scandian League. “I understand you have an interest in the lumber rights to the forests north of Tantar and Tuntar.”
“Ja,” he said, “ve have been having trouble mit zhe local gruppen.”
“I’m hardly surprised,” said Bragsworth, “many Forest Clanners want to preserve the forest. Using it as a hunting ground is part of our tradition. We’re natural hunters, you know,” he smiled, baring teeth, “better than human hearing, an incredible scent of smell…why, our military Chief of Staff, Halder Skalice, stalked a Dark Wrath general across half the continent, from just the smell of a bloodstained piece of cloth.”
Gunther Krupp felt incredibly awkward. These Scandians were somewhat more…macabre than his usual business partners.
It was Plok Polk, the Gramorian, who broke the silence. “WHAT?” he shouted. “Who interrupted my nap?”
Gunther Krupp valiantly attempted to continue his attempt to plunder the resources of this weak nation. “I vas vondering if this group could assist me,” he said.
“The Presidium is the elected executive of the people,” said Ruvin Ulan, who had maybe spent a grand total of one year of his life in Spring. “I don’t believe we’re in the business of overturning them.”
“I must concur,” said Bragsworth. “Although we must have deliberations in closed council on this matter, at this time your chances don’t look promising.”
“I see,” said Gunther, and sighed. He snapped his fingers; assistants came in, carrying several large crates. “Vell, then, I hope you get back to me. These crates, they are filled with hundred-GP notes. I am sure you will do the right thing.”
And Gunther turned and left, and the members of the Presidium, all save Travin, descended like a pack of hungry sharks on the crates. Sure enough, it was filled with hundreds of thousand of geld. Travin was aghast.
“Don’t be such a sourpuss, Rumanski,” said Roberto. “Your alternative is to be the guy on the street with nothing.”
Rumanski shook his head. “There is another way.”
“What?” said Roberto.
“Solidarity. Socialism. Collectivism.”
“Communist, eh?” said Roberto, and shrugged. “Well, I like to keep many mistresses and a few young boys, so I guess I’ll just let you have your little vice, too.”
IX. The Nomenklatura
The conference room was spacious. There was little luxury to be had in Scande, and so they often substituted spaciousness for it; that did not change the fact that in the center was a solid stone table, and the walls were concrete. This was in a deep level of Party Headquarters; for this many of the <i> nomenklatura </i> to gather, a secure location was necessary. Those that carried weapons had been forced to give them up; the Crimson Guard was out in force, and Comrade Rumanski would be arriving soon. Halder Skalice could not remember the last time he had seen so many of the ruling <i> apparat </i> assembled. There was himself, of course, along with other representatives of the SLCM: Georgi Tarkov for SLCM-Sea, Mikhail Zolitsky for SLCM-Space, and the newly appointed Dalia Rina for SLCM-Air. (Halder, in addition to being Chief of Staff, represented SLCM-Ground.) Ivan Gletkin, Chief of S/31, was there, no doubt aware his agency would now have to focus closer to home; Commissioner Benetov, in charge of the Solidat (for how much longer no one could tell); Boris Dalienin, Commissar for Agriculture, and a number of other members of the powerful Council on Economic Planning; Nikolai Serchenko, Commissar for External Affairs, who was probably here to reassure everyone that the rest of the Web wasn’t invading just yet; and there was another, a Crystal golem Halder didn’t recognize at first, but soon realized that the shimmering gemstone giant had to be the so-called Hand of Travin. Skalice had thought it merely a rumor.
There was no food on the table as the leaders of the All-Union Communist Party (of the Dragon Dimension) milled about awkwardly; Halder had hoped there would at least be something light, he had come straight from Central Command and hadn’t had a chance to eat all day. There was only a samovar filled with vodka; more than a few people in the room needed a drink after the events of the past twenty-four hours.
When Comrade Rumanski entered the room, people did not stand up, did not salute; Travin was not, after all, technically a military man, and neither were the majority of people in the room. There was, however, a pall in the room; a silence imposed itself, forcing a stultifying vacuum. Some of the men awkwardly began to take seats, thinking that now would be the time for business.
A voice came over the speakers. “Please rise for the anthem of the laboring masses.”
Everyone stood as the static vocals of the Scandian League anthem blared over speakers. It was solemn, martial, always sung by a full choir. Halder supposed it was only appropriate; a meeting of this many high-level officials didn’t happen often.
Afterwards, everyone continued to stand for a moment, until Travin took his seat at the head of the table. Then, everyone followed.
Travin Rumanski began. “I will recap, so we are all on the same page,” he said, “although many of you already know at least parts of what I am about to say. A radical terrorist faction seeking to destroy the League, the very society which has been put in place to protect and support them, has begun a revolt centered around Arad. They control the city of Arad and several of the outlying villages; their control over the surrounding desert is presently being assessed. They have no pushed north to Bleak or Auria, although we believe that will be a primary objective for them—Comrade Skalice will discuss that in more detail later. This group, the Yellow Turbans, seeks to restore Draggonethi rule to the region.” Travin paused. “What I am about to say is the most important thing that will be said in this briefing, so I want all of you, dear comrades, to listen to me very carefully.”
“<i> No one must know of these events. </i> News of the revolt has been suppressed, and will continue to be suppressed. We have jammed all Yellow Turban communications and severed all telephone links to and from Arad. It is imperative that the rest of the League not learn of these events. Although the Yellow Turbans are an isolated group, we do not know for certain that there are not other, similar groups who would be emboldened by the opportunity to strike; perhaps remnants of the il’Bleu, for example. If news of these events spread, it could mean the end of all we had worked so hard these past two decades to build. Also, at this time our official story to the rest of the Web if we are asked about events in Arad is that it is a large-scale military exercise. We conduct military exercises with the Crucible often enough that this is fairly credible. If the sharks smell even a hint of blood from this small cut on us, well, it will merely be a race between the other Great Powers to see who can carve us up the fastest. Even the détente with Tasnica would be moot.”
“We could probably count on the National Alliance for Peace to protest,” said Ivan Gletkin, the S/31 Chief. “Pacifists are such useful idiots.” Travin glared at the intelligence head for interrupting; Halder’s forest clanner ears detected a gulp in the man’s throat.
“Allow me to reiterate: we operate under a great veil of secrecy. Beyond those who absolutely need to know, we will inform nobody. Suppressing news and information about the Yellow Turban Rebellion is a primary consideration.”
“Comrade Rumanski,” said Skalice, “don’t you think the people will become alarmed that Arad has been sealed off and no one can phone anyone there?”
“Maybe,” said Rumanski, “but we can determine a suitable cover story later. Perhaps a major mechanical malfunction, a disease, or sabotage on behalf of Guardian agents. Besides, I think by now people know better than to ask too many questions about certain things.”
“…of course, Comrade Rumanski,” said Halder, defeated. "But what about afterwards? We can't deploy military force on this scale and expect every soldier to keep his mouth shut about what they did."
Travin smiled ghoulishly. "Afterwards, it doesn't matter," he said. "In fact, if word gets out to the people after the revolt is crushed, so much the better, because they will hear that a massive uprising was utterly and mercilessly destroyed. No one would be so foolish as to try again."
Travin's word, in all things, was final.
“Well, then,” said Travin, “with that in mind, I turn things over to Comrade Benetov, Commissioner of the Solidat.”
“Of course, Comrade Rumanski,” said Benetov. Benetov had had quite a bit of vodka before the meeting; he was a little overweight (by Scandian standards), and was sweating profusely. “We have identified one of the leaders of the revolution as Sud Bloodbane, an elementary school teacher. We are fortunate that many in Arad wish to see a return to Communism; this operation leaks like a sieve. We believe he maintained contact with a large underground network of Draggonethi fanatics from a hidden base in the city if Wisdon.”
“Impossible,” snorted Serchenko. “Wisdon was destroyed in the Great War. No one knows where it is. Besides, it moved about aimlessly.”
“That is what concerns me, Comrade Serchenko,” contuined the Solidat man, nervously adjusting his bright yellow uniform. “We have heard rumors that Sud has a great power behind him.”
“Who or what, exactly?” asked Skalice. “Guardia? Esper? Not Tasnica, they don’t have the balls.”
Benetov frowned. “Not that kind of great power. More like a…higher power.”
Skalice laughed, grimly, “The Dragon God?”
“I do not know,” said Benetov.
Halder heard someone say, “useless, worse than useless,” but it was too low for anyone not a Forest clanner to hear.
“I have just one more thing to say,” said Benetov. “The Solidat will be conducting political screenings of all SLCM soldiers to be deployed in this operation.”
“That’s outrageous,” snapped Skalice. “These are people who are going to lay down their lives for Scande. I should think that any questions as to their loyalty would be settled by that fact alone.”
The Solidat man got a big, ugly grin. “You’ve heard of Sven Zerekovski, the ‘Fist of Gunta’? We have heard that he has joined the rebels. If such an esteemed ace of the Dracoforms Service betrays us, no one is above suspicion.”
“Well, then,” said Halder, sarcastically, “I was planning on heading out to Arad as soon as possible, but I suppose I had better wait for my political screening to verify my proper loyalty.”
Halder said the statement fully expecting Rumanski or someone to insist that such a thing was naturally unnecessary for the Chief of Staff of the SLCM (entrusted as he was with the military forces of the whole country), but no one did. After a moment, Benetov simply said, “yes, you had better.”
“Is this all you have?” said Gletkin, angrily. “I have only recently deployed some S/31 agents to infiltrate the movement; domestic intelligence is not usually part of our purview. I expected Solidat to have much more on the Yellow Turbans. Perhaps, Comrade Benetov, you can explain why the Draggoneth have Grand Army weapons? Or is this just the province of the Dragon, hmm?”
“I can speak to that,” said Comrade Rumanski, “I spoke with the Generalissimo personally in regards to that matter just before coming here. He was reluctant to say very much about the situation, and I naturally appreciate his need for discretion in this matter. We have very similar interests in that respect, and Celiose has agreed not to share this information with other GACA members or the Alliance Congress; it is, after all, a matter of national security for us, and a major embarrassment for GA base security, similar to when the New Wraith managed to acquire an Ultima missile from a GA facility.”
“Comrade Rumanski, perhaps rather than talk about how no one’s going to talk about this, you should tell us what Celiose said,” said Skalice. It was as if a small bomb had went off in the room; only Skalice could afford to be so blunt with <i> koyzha </i>.
Travin gave a light chuckle in Halder's direction. “Celiose claims that there may be a group inside the GA working with the Draggonethi,” said Rumanski. “This is obviously a source of great alarm for both of us, as naturally the Grand Army is the protector of all of its member states and should not meddle in politics.”
“Are we fortunate enough to have some assistance in suppressing this revolt from the Grand Army?” asked Gletkin.
“As a matter of fact, yes,” said Rumanski. A man dressed in the white-and-silver of the Celpo entered the room; his uniform was identified by a flashpatch with a psi insignia. “This is Alfred Chekhov, a Celpo Minder.”
People in the room were already on edge, but the appearance of a Celpo agent, one who could read minds, definitely heightened the tension.
“Chekhov,” said Dalienin, “a Scandish name.”
“That was a long time ago,” said the Celpo man. “These days, I’m Everywhere and Nowhere. I have been attached to your…operation as GA liaison, and to provide assistance.”
“Like what sort of assistance?” asked Benetov.
“Like, reading people’s minds,” said Chekhov. “It’s quite handy when you’re trying to locate something elusive. Resistance headquarters, Espers, Seraphim—things of this nature, as Kenny might say.”
“That’s it?” said Benetov. “That’s all the GA sent to aid us?” The Solidat man was clearly unimpressed; if Chekhov was miffed, he did not show it. Then again, the psionic was certainly unsurprised; reading the surface thoughts of the people of the room was as simple as sweeping his eyes around. Easier. In fact, proper training and discipline were needed to keep the screaming thoughts of the mundanes <i> out </i>, to keep him from going insane as he had been when the Celpo had found him.
Benetov continued, “No regiments?”
“I’d take one Celpo operative over a regiment,” said Ivan Gletkin. Like most spymasters in the Web, the S/31 chief had a healthy respect for the Celpo.
“Well, I don’t need to be psychic to know that this is a little awkward, so I’ll just go back to the next room over.” Chekov the Minder smiled. “Be seeing you.”
The mood in the room lightened somewhat when he left; like many in the Web, the Scandians were pleased to have Celpo on their side, but really did not like dealing with them. Still, there was tension as Comrade Rumanski announced that Comrade Dalienin, Commissar for Agriculture and Chair of the Council on Economic Planning was next to speak. Dalienin was powerful; the only member besides Rumanski of the original Committee for the Revolution still alive, and the master of the League’s economy; if Rumanski died tomorrow, Dalienin would probably be the successor. (Or the nation would collapse utterly.)
“As you know all too well, Comrades, this Guardian blockade of Merge has strapped our food resources,” began Dalienin, “although we have recently forged links with the Unbound and have been able to mitigate that somewhat. I ask you, Comrades, to imagine our economy as a plane with three engines: grain from the FTSR, grain from Merge, and oil from Arad. If you lose one engine, you will run into problems, but the plane will still fly. Lose two engines, and things begin to get somewhat rough, comrades. Although power production is somewhat secure—a deal with the Tasnicans for some uranium allowed us to build excess capacity for just such a problem—transportation, military operations, and a number of other important functions still rely on oil. We have stockpiles, and are taking measures to conserve oil usage, of course, but our oil is still largely produced and stored in Arad.”
Skalice chimed in, “Our military operations have been halted in Mysidia and Ticondera.” Pity, too; the Viperese were on the ropes, and this halt would give them a chance to re-form their lines. “The anti-drug smuggling operations in Medina continue.” As per <i> koyzha’s </i> personal order; Medina was somewhat on the fence, and Rumanski did not want to lose face in front of them. “Also, all SLCM-Space ships are returning to port. I point out that we are doing this so we have enough fuel to fight the coming campaign against the Yellow Turbans…as well as any other emergency actions.”
Dalienin continued, “Nonetheless, comrades, I wish to convey to you the…fragility of all this,” he gestured around the bunker, “if Guardia gets wise to our smuggling operation, and this campaign to suppress Arad goes on for a long time…well, we could be reduced to conditions comparable to those of the Leviathan War. And I don’t feel as though I need to remind everyone here of the necessity of avoiding <i> that </i> experience.” That experience, after all, was what had allowed the Voice of a Free League to form, which is what had brought the current debacle on them all. “In summary, comrades, right now we are fine, but we are very, very close to crossing a line where we will be very…not fine.”
“Thank you, Comrade Dalienin,” said Travin. “And now, Comrade Skalice, would you like to speak as to the preparations to put an end to this Yellow Turban Rebellion?”
Halder looked around at the assembled high-ranking members of the party; they were nervous, and a little bit rankled. Large speeches were not usually his style, but he felt the need to at least attempt to reassure them somewhat. “Comrades,” he began, “I have fought as the insurgent and the counterinsurgent in these campaigns. I think I can safely say that being the insurgent is romanticized and overrated. The guerilla attains victory the same way anyone does: by destroying his opponents will to fight. Prima facie, we possess crushing advantages: large and numerous mechanized forces, aircraft and spacecraft, a modern transportation and communications network, a powerful navy, and the best mecha forces in the Web. Comrades, these are not only our advantages; they are our disadvantages. To the guerilla, these are targets, and because are advantages are seemingly so great, that any defeat, any setback, can become hugely magnified. We might occupy a town and lose only a few tanks, but in the guerilla’s scheme of things, it becomes the heroic fighters against insurmountable odds that managed to destroy a few weapons of the awesome war machine. In other words, comrades, we battle a game of expectations; if we win nine out of ten battles, the battle we lose will be the one we hear about.” He smiled slightly, slightly self-aware at the analogy he was about to use, “The guerilla fights the war of the flea, and we as his opponent suffer the dog’s disadvantages: too much territory to cover, and too small, quick, and nimble an opponent to react against.”
“That was…less than uplifting,” said Gletkin. “What do you intend to do to crush this rebellion?”
“Slowly but surely, Comrade Gletkin,” said Skalice. “I have spoken with Legate Candice Kornski, in charge of Task Force Garm,” he said, “as some of you may know, Task Force Garm was on position in Auria, our forward staging area for an invasion of Truce should their forces in Merge push up against our Light Horse regiment in Exodus.” The sole regiment of SLCM ground troops in Merge was there as a sort of “trip wire”; the Guardians were well aware of what pushing that far north would mean.
“Comrade Skalice,” asked Benetov, “why not use our bases in Medina for such an operation?”
“Because that’s exactly where the Guardians would expect it,” said Skalice.
Rumanski added, “Further, our Medinan friends would be completely embarrassed. There is no question of us using the Medinan bases for anything other than suppressing drug smugglers. Comrade Skalice, continue.”
“My point, comrades, is that the force we are employing against this revolt are comparable to those we would use against another Great Power. Comrade Kornski has a background as an Assault Engineer, so we discussed the strategy we will employ, known as “encastellation”. We will occupy the hamlets and villages, moving south and west towards Arad. Our Assault Engineers will put up quick foamcrete installations in each village. These will provide bases of operations for biker scouts to conduct search-and-destroy missions; we will also have a reserve of light tanks for heavier targets. Meanwhile, our main mechanized force will continue to chug on, slowly and inexorably, to Arad itself, even to Wisdon, if the city exists.”
“That’s it?” said Gletkin. “That’s somewhat…inelegant. Especially by your high standards, Comrade Skalice. There’s nothing to knock the enemy off balance, no rapid strike, no—“
“Comrade Gletkin,” interrupted Skalice, “I don’t like it any more than you do. But I should point out that as long as we keep the borders sealed, they have little chance of ultimate victory. GA weapons have one major weakness: they are supply hogs, and we fight an enemy that does not have the luxury of a lavish train of supply trucks backing it up. Even in engagements they win, they expend irreplaceable magilyte and missiles to do so. It is weakspots and blindspots that allow guerillas to thrive, and the slow and inexorable occupation and fortification of the countryside is the best solution.” There was a pause. “I wish, most of all, to put your minds at ease over this matter. The idea that a bunch of religious fanatics in turbans can defeat the most feared military in the Web is romantic and overrated. They will only win if we let them win.”
“Thank you, Comrade Skalice,” said Travin. He gestured at the crystal golem. “Grimlock will accompany you, to supervise your command of the operation.”
Halder was stunned. He was the Chief of Staff of the SLCM; there should be no one in the League who would supervise HIS command of a military operation. Nonetheless, this crystal golem, this half-rumored Hand of Travin, had just been appointed his commander. Before he could respond, Travin continued to speak.
“These are detestable rebels,” said Travin, “they seek to wage war against they very society and order which is designed for their benefit. Comrades, I have no doubt that the people of Arad will realize the foolishness of the Yellow Turbans and welcome us back with open arms. Everyone—except Comrade Benetov--, you may leave, to attend to your duties.”
Halder’s forest clan ears heard the Solidat Commisioner’s <i> gulp </i>; he looked over at the man, sensing an emotion he wouldn’t quite call courage.
After everyone was out of the room and the door was closed, Halder’s forest clan ears heard something else: a silenced shot.
X. Dinner with a Friend
Halder considered canceling his dinner plans with Enrika, but he rarely got to see her these days. Even if he did have a lot of work to do, it would be nice to talk to her before he left for the front; he had precious few friends these days. He didn’t mind too much, most of the time; he was able to keep busy, and at fifty-six (somewhat old by Forest Clan standards; his fur was getting whiter by the day, and not the white of those born with that color, either), he was fine without many social entanglements.
As a high-ranking member of the nomenklatura, Halder Skalice had the luxury of his own, small house. Like every other building in Scande, it was a droll slab of concrete; it looked more like a pillbox than a house. But he had a living room, his bedroom, a bathroom, and a kitchen; privately, he felt a little bit guilty at such excess. Most Scandians lived in large worker’s dormitories, with larger dwellings reserved for families with children. The place always choked his lungs with dust; he was rarely ever there personally, he was almost always on the move, and almost every night of the year he slept in some SLCM base or another.
He changed out of his uniform, being careful to not let it get wrinkled. He changed into “civvy” clothes; after a week in Ablrook with its garish Tasnican-influenced styles, the simple cottons and linens that were the norm in Scande were easy on his eyes. He wasn’t quite looking forward to the food for dinner, though; intellectually, he realized that kelp and other aquaculture could be the food solution that would save the nation, but he still didn’t like the taste of it so much.
Halder’s doorbell rang, and he fetched it to open for Enrika. He smiled when seeing her; even though she was getting up in the years, too, it was not impossible to remember the younger days, even if it was only puppy love.
“Hey, Hal,” she said. “Nice place you’ve got, here.”
“Oh, you know me, give me the forest under the stars, any day,” he said. As soon as Halder said that statement, he immediately wondered how long it had been since he had actually slept in the forest, under the stars, with the sounds of birds and trees and other life; not at all like the spinning metal of cities and military camps. He shoved that thought out of his mind; one thing Halder Skalice excelled at was shoving unpleasant thoughts out of his mind. He gestured for Enrika to have a seat, trying to focus on having a pleasant dinner with an old friend and not on the fact that in less than two days he was going to be commanding armies and crushing rebels.
“I brought something,” she smiled, and produced a bottle of white wine.
“Man, how many marks did that cost you?” asked Halder. Luxury goods were expensive these days; only vodka was inexpensive.
“I’ve been saving it,” she said, “for a while, actually.”
“What’s the occasion?” asked Halder.
“Do I need one, Hal?” she asked. Halder walked to his kitchen and grabbed his glasses. “Sorry, I don’t have proper wine glasses.”
“Who am I to stand on ceremony?”
They sat, and began to eat their salad of sea kelp. Enrika poured the wine. “To the Health of the Men of the nation,” she toasted.
“Yes, indeed,” said Halder.
“How was your trip to Albrook?” asked Enrika.
Halder had to muster his thoughts; his trip to Albrook, just last week, was something he could barely remember. “You know, it was quite an honor to be asked to participate. To meet Celiose Cole.” Halder smiled, excitedly, and ran to his room and put something on the counter.
“<i> How We Win Wars </i>,” she read, “by Celiose Cole.”
“Yes, it’s the introductory training manual used at GAMA, as well as the Crucible and a half-dozen other military academies,” explained Skalice. “When Celiose was starting out in charge of the REF, he had to rebuild the force after the debacle in Norther Viper, so he published some writings to help him train his troops. <i> Supply and War </i>, <i> A Theory of Combined Arms </i>, and, of course, his seminal classic, <i> Small Unit Leadership </i>.”
Enrika opened the cover. “From one soldier of the Great War to another. C. Cole. Signed personally by the Generalissimo. Very impressive.”
“I even got to play a wargame against him,” said Halder.
“Did you win?” asked Enrika.
“No,” said Halder. “No, I lost pretty badly. At one point I thought I had him pretty good.” He added pridefully, “I think he actually had to think about it pretty hard. To beat me.”
“Ah,” said Enrika. “I don’t get to travel abroad so very much these days.”
Halder smiled, “Well, I rarely get to travel abroad unless it’s with regiments of tanks in front of me. It’s nice to visit a city that’s not in the middle of active combat.” He stuck his fork into his kelp salad, and ate dutifully. He could never get the salt right. It was either too salty, or not salty enough.
“They’re selling this stuff everywhere,” Enrika said. “Halder, during the last war…things were pretty bad. Tell me straight, will you? I know what the official news says, but I’m not stupid. I know we get food from Merge, and with the war there it will be harder for us to get food. Well, will it be like the Leviathan War?”
“Even the Leviathan War wasn’t as bad as before the Revolution,” said Halder, a little bit defensively.
“Hal, during the Leviathan War I had three loafs of bread a day. Nothing more, nothing less. It wasn’t until the end of thirty-seven that I could actually buy any <i> meat </i>.”
“You made it through, didn’t you?” said Halder.
Enrika smiled politely. Halder and herself had had this argument dozens of times before. Not about food and the Leviathan War, but the argument that was at the heart of things in the Scandian League, and each time it was just beneath the surface; they couldn’t discuss it openly, because everyone knew who was watching. Which was exactly the problem, at any rate.
“We’ll get by, we always do,” said Halder. <I> We will, anyway, if I do my duty correctly. </i>
“I think I’m going to be eating a lot more kelp,” said Enrika. “But I suppose you’re right. It’s better than nothing.”
“One thing I never get when I travel abroad,” said Halder. “Rimmel Coward and his wife Kitty were in town when I was there—apparently they kick by to visit every so often. Celiose had work that night so they were kind enough to invite me to dinner with them; Shana was there, too. I never understand these foreigners; they finish a meal, and throw leftover food away. Like it was nothing. But the restaurant they wanted go to; well, they drove through Mictown.”
“Exactly what it sounds like,” said Halder. “During the war, many Esperians fled south, to Albrook. Mictown is their ghetto. I tried to hide in the back seat. They didn’t seem to understand.” He shook his head. “Here they were, talking about what an honor it was to host such an esteemed soldier such as myself, and we drove right in the midst of the refugees that I was responsible for, and they said not a word. Like they didn’t even know.”
“Hal, do you ever wonder,” asked Enrika. “well, Hal, these people in Mictown, how were they living?”
“Destitute,” said Halder. “It was the slum. Kitty was driving and she got us lost; no one wanted to go there. The <i> smell </i> of the place.”
“Well, Hal,” said Enrika, “do you feel…feel proud of the war?”
There was an awkward moment of silence, during which time both Forest Clanners could hear the clockwork of Halder’s watch ticking off second.
“Of course,” said Halder, nodding. “Of course. Served the League, served communism, I saved the Web from Fascism.” What was it the capitalists always said of TO Halberg? <i> TO Halberg, who saved the Web from Communsim. </i> “Besides,” he added, “it was them or us.”
Enrika suppressed the urge to sigh; Hal always did this when she tried to press him. Maybe the Priest was right. “Do you remember, Hal,” she said, “when I used to put up silence spells around us, when we were hiding in the bushes, so no one could hear us?” she said.
“Why do you bring that up?”
“Because I just cast that spell,” she said. “We’re not being listened to, by anyone. Anyone at all. Because Halder, I have to know – knowing how the Esperians suffered, how our people suffered…are you proud of the war?”
“Proud?” said Halder. “I don’t think any soldier’s all that proud of his achievements as a killer. But you have to understand, Enrika, if we didn’t fight, the war would come here, to Dragon, and then it would be <i> really </i> bad. Like the old days. I’m not going back to the old days, Enrika. I like being able to take for granted the water I’m drinking is clean, or that when I flip a switch I will have light that turns on, or that children are being educated instead of starving.”
Enrika thought, <i> How much is all that worth? </i>. She wished she had said it, but held her tongue. “Hal…well, I guess I had better go.”
Halder looked at Enrika with great concern. “Enrika,” he said. “Be….careful. I understand that…well, that nothing’s perfect. But…well, I just want you to be safe, is all.” <I> I don’t want your questions to be taken the wrong way by the Solidat. </i>
“Well, Hal, I’ll do my best,” she said.
Halder sighed. “Sorry, I just…I suppose that your life is dominated by one thing, one fact, you get a little worked up over it.” He smiled. “I was hoping to get a little break from it. I’ve not so many friends these days.”
“I’ve not so many friends these days, either,” said Enrika. “You take care of yourself, too.”