::GATO Headquarters, Truce::
The city of Truce was meaningfully named over two thousand years ago, when Vinas Guardus became the first Guardian King and established his Kingdom. Truce’s founding marked the end of an extended period of bloodshed, and the advent of Guardus’ “Land of Perfect Good,” where peace and prosperity would rule.
Leaving aside that it was the capital city of Guardia, Truce seemed a natural choice for the new headquarters of GATO, given the dictionary definition of its name and the history of its founding. The Guardian Civil War was over, and while the postwar politics of Gate largely involved the dismantling of Guardian imperial colonialism within the Gate Dimension, the founding of a new Gate Alliance Treaty Organization could rightly have been seen as a desperate attempt by the Guardians to hang on to some vestige of Great Power-level standing.
The proverbial “having one’s cake and eating it, too.”
The official headquarters was designated as the old Truce Convention Center, nestled in the center of Truce’s urban sprawl. Spanned on all sides by freeway overpasses, the great glass dome of the Convention Center had fallen largely into disuse in recent times; its owners had promised for years that rennovations were on the way, but in the meantime the events that used to be housed here (collegiate sports, science fiction conventions, the annual Royalist Party Committee convention) had since moved to other, more modern venues.
The Convention Center’s owners seemed only too happy to sign the property over to the Guardian Government. Where it had previously stood next to empty, it was now teeming with diplomats from across all of Gate. While the bulk of security was being provided for by the Guardian Defense Force, uniforms from the other Gate nations were evidenced as well: the menacing black uniforms of Porre’s army, the simple brown uniforms of the Chorrans (now a legitimate army and no longer a rag-tag band of “browncoat” rebels), the green fatigues of the Medinans and the ceremonial steel breastplates-and-leather-kilts of the Nidoans.
As might be expected in the international intrigues of a major Core world of the Web, the events of the foundational meeting of the GATO assembly were happening on two levels: one public, dominating the convention floor, as representatives from the five Gatian nations held a public forum on what the policies and attitudes of the Alliance ought to be; and then there was another, less-public event. One closed to the press, held away from prying eyes deep in the basement levels of the Convention Center.
King Derik strode purposefully into this makeshift war room: a lower-level conference hall dominated by a long glass table and flanked by piles of cardboard boxes stacked against the walls. ZAPS had assured the King that the room was safely away from prying eyes and ears; for extra measure, Norstein Bekkler himself cast the scrying wards that would protect everything that was said within the chamber.
As the King entered, the assembled advisors, politicians and military leaders stood respectfully. And then, as he sat, so did they. For most of the people here, Derik was not their King – or, wasn’t their King anymore. Especially with the Chorrans, the wounds of the Civil War were still quite fresh, and your average Chorran was still loath to trust or accept the leadership of a Guardian. But for the Chorran leaders present – especially Chorras’ new Governor, John Dario – Derik commanded enormous respect. He had rooted out the conspiracy within his own government, pulled the GDF away from its land invasion of Chorran soil. It was entirely because of Derik that more brave Chorran soldiers hadn’t died at the hands of Fate’s minions; because of Derik, Khalid Morris now sat in a jail cell.
Derik glanced around the room. There were many faces here he recognized, and yet many he did not. This was somewhat fitting: it wasn’t the same old game anymore. This was something new, something untested.
Derik walked into this room as King of Guardia, but as he sat down, he was setting aside the crown and attending a council of equals.
Derik was consciously aware that no major Web power had ever gotten stronger through dividing up its territory. But that seemed to be what lay at the heart of the Guardian experiment: in order to end the war and restore peace to the Gate Dimension, Guardia laid down its weapons first and gave independence to the Chorrans and Porreans. He made good on the promise that his father had made a generation earlier. As part of the arrangement, the five nations of Gate would come together and re-form GATO.
The death of King Edge Eblana, a stalwart ally of Guardia, would be the first great test of this new alliance. Could GATO continue to throw its weight about as a Great Power on the Web scene, or would Derik’s noble efforts to end the civil war see Guardian influence diminish forever?
As he sat, Derik offered a nod to each of the five leaders of GATO, in turn. These would be his partners in leading the Alliance; ensuring that GATO retained Guardia’s place of prestige as a Great Power.
Valphia Voth was the newly elected Prime Minister of Medina. She was a statuesque, powerfully built naga-ette with snow white skin and scales contrasted against coal black hair and eyes. While Gorgon Welles had tried to keep Medina out of the war, Valphia and a host of laid-off Medinan soldiers served as mercenaries on behalf of the Chorrans. The average Medinan didn’t really care about the outcome or the politics of the Guardian Civil War: what they respected about Valphia was her lifetime career as a soldier, the many accolades and decorations for valor that she’d earned. They respected Valphia’s devotion to Medina itself, in all its permutations. In the course of her career, she’d served under Ozzie, Lord Skull and Tyurin Cage. She’d served as a bodyguard for Sancho Dune during the time of the Shadow Barons, then returned to the reincorporated Medinan armed forces after the reestablishment of the Republic – until Gage Rizett came in to reform the military, and Valphia and scores of others found themselves unemployed.
It was just Welles’ poor luck that the next round of elections fell around the time the Civil War was ending; even worse luck that Valphia had not only survived, but the tales of her bravery had preceded her. Her turn from warrior to politician was surprising, even to her closest associates… but there were rumors that Eli Cromlich, the doppleganger arms dealer who was John Dario’s right hand man, had put her up to it and even ran her campaign.
John Dario was now Governor of Chorras, taking up the mantle of leadership after the epic clash of dragons between Janus Cage and Lord Dregoth that resulted in the latter’s death. Dario’s journey was a strange one: first catapulted into the limelight as the quarterback of the SCTI Ghost Knights, he lead his team to victory in the Gate Conference and several exhibition victories against prominent Esper and Mana Conference teams. He chose service to his country over a career in WFL football, and fought as a GDF infantryman during the closing battles of the Leviathan War’s Esper theater. Disillusioned with the Guardian military’s predisposition toward elitism and nepotism in the knighthood-dominated officers corps, he returned home to Chorras and joined the Chorran Law Enforcement Agency. But even CLEA seemed an imperfect fit, which made it all the more easy for Eli Cromlich to recruit Dario into the fledging resistance group that would eventually become the Chorran Resistance Army. Together with Chorras’ separatist Governor, the ex-Defiler known as Dregoth, Dario lead the CRA into a clash with the Guardian military in a show of force that nearly brought a Great Power to its knees.
It was natural that, after the end of the Civil War, the Governorship was Dario’s for the asking. He’d never aspired to political office before, and didn’t seem the type to seek out a position of leadership to further some hidden ambition. Once again, it was reasonable to expect the hidden hand of Eli Cromlich was involved.
Not much was known about the new leader of the Porrean Republic: Michael Itica retained his old GDF rank of Colonel, and laid claim to an electoral mandate from the Porrean people (although nobody was really aware of when this supposed election had taken place). Like the other officers he’d brought in his delegation, Colonel Itica wore a black officer’s uniform with silvery adornments. A badge, worn on the left breast of the Porrean officers’ uniforms, depicted a rearing silver chimera, a now-highly-recognizable emblem of the Porrean military authority that ruled the new republic.
Finally, there were the Nidoans. The elected President of El Nido’s Council of Governors was Paolo Cartwright. Like most of the humans from the island of Acacia, he was clearly descended from Zenan stock, and bore the healthy tan that came with island living. His curly ginger locks were long enough to be drawn back at the nape of his neck into a tightly-braided tail, and he dressed in a fashion that seemed to blend the fineries of Guardian nobility with castaway island chic. As El Nido’s President, he spoke with authority for all of the various governments of El Nido’s islands – though, back at home, the Malcovian Troubles were still very much a thing, and an answer to Brer Rabbey’s reign of terror had yet to be arrived at.
“Thank you, friends, for joining me in this great endeavor,” Derik began, leaning forward on the long conference table. “Some have, in the past, accused Guardia of seeking hegemonic influence in other parts of the Web through our colonization of space. They would cheapen these great works of my Kingdom, indeed some of the greatest feats of engineering and exploration ever undertaken by sapientkind in the Web of Worlds, by ascribing to them base motivations of avarice and ambition. But these are lies, and we will prove them such together. When Guardia prospers, do does Gate; when Gate prospers, so do all Gatians. This has been true ever since our entry into the Web of Worlds, when Guardia and Medina set aside their historic rivalries and joined together into one of the most successful diplomatic partnerships ever known. It is my hope that this will continue to be true, as we move forward into a new era: no longer is Guardia, alone, a Great Power. Now, alongside the nations of the Gate Alliance, we become a Great Power together.”
The Porrean and Nidoan delegations seemed pleased at this; El Nido especially, being the smallest nation at the table, delighted at being invited to play at Big Things on the Web interdimensional scene alongside a heavyweight like Guardia. However, the Medinans and Chorrans plainly evidenced skepticism on their faces.
“We have our first great test before us,” Derik continued. “The King of Eblan is dead. I knew King Edge. I had met him on a few occasions. When I raised the call to fight the Merge League and come to the aid of our Balian allies, Edge stood with me. I regret I had few opportunities to know him better, but I would still call him a friend.”
“Indeed a tragic loss,” said Colonel Itica, apparently willing to ingratiate himself to the Guardian King. “I cannot say I knew him, your highness. But if he was a friend of yours and an ally of Guardia’s, then I suppose that would make him an ally of this entire Alliance as well. I will order all flags in Porre lowered to half-staff in his honor.”
Derik nodded his head in appreciation of Itica’s gesture.
“Doubtless you now mean to move the conversation on to the matter of the Eblanese succession,” Valphia said, serpentine venom evident in her voice.
“Indeed,” Derik said. “For my part, I have given Guardia’s support to House Kurita’s claim. My government recognizes the legitimacy of King Nauquan, and I plan to personally make a state visit to Eblana Royale as soon as it is convenient.”
“Whoa whoa whoa,” Eli Cromlich said, leaning forward to interject. “Begging your pardon, your royal highness… but you did this before coming to consult us?”
Derik nodded. “I did. Guardia owes much to House Kurita, just as it does to the Kingdom of Eblan. Nauquan personally fought among the Coalition forces in Merge and helped restore King Calleis to his rightful seat of power in Bal Castle.”
“And so this means we are all expected to lock arms with Kurita? Just because they helped fight one of Guardia’s wars?” Valphia scoffed and crossed her arms.
Doan – resident elder statesman – leaned forward. “Not at all,” he said. “Derik has acted on behalf of Guardia, and Guardia alone; something that, I expect, he shall do less and less of as GATO matures and develops. The debt of honor that King Derik owes to Eblan and Kurita was incured before we came together to re-form a new Gate Alliance. None of you are so indebted.”
Derik placed a hand on Doan’s shoulder. There were times when he looked upon the old man and forgot that he was a parallel universe version of the father that he’d lost to Rajaat’s Cleansing War.
“Going forward,” Derik said, “We will decide together how we proceed. Guardia has spoken in favor of Nauquan. What we are here to discuss today is how the larger Gate Alliance will react to King Edge’s death and House Kurita’s ascension.”
“Is Kurita the only claimant?” Cartwright, the Nidoan President, ventured to ask.
“I should say not.” this voice belonged to Sir Tancred, the Guardian Prefect of the Gatian colony of Defiance on Crystal IV. He was not physically in attendance at this summit; rather, his holographic projection sat as part of the Guardian delegation. “Any of the Eblanese Houses could press a claim if they wanted. Kurita’s is the strongest we could hope for, though: Lord Tahi is Archchancellor of the Diet, and many of the lesser houses will bend to his command.”
“As, no doubt, the Guardian King expects all of us to bend to his,” Valphia said.
“There is, of course, the matter of Scandian interference,” came the voice of Malvo Thames, Grand Admiral of the Guardian Space Fleet. Apart from Gage Rizett (former GA Rear General and Chief of Air Operations, currently part of the Medinan delegation), Thames was the most outsized and respected military officer in the room. “Doubtless Ichiro Mitsuhama will rear his ugly head again. As a matter of fact, I find it highly unlikely that the Mitsuhamas had nothing to do with King Edge’s death in the first place.”
Doan scowled in Thames’ direction. Even the Doan from a parallel universe thought little of Thames’ bluster. “A baseless accusation, Admiral.”
“Unless you have eyes,” Thames replied.
Mako cleared his throat. Everyone in the room hushed and paid attention as the Priman spymaster prepared to speak. “It is true enough that Mitsuhama has verifiable ties to the Protectorate,” he said. “But they haven’t made any move yet.”
“‘Yet’ being the operative word,” replied Norstein Bekkler. The Mask was playing idly with a pair of chopsticks, twirling them in and between his disembodied gloves with impressive skill and dexterity. “But my sources tell me this is all but inevitable. Scande would love for nothing more than to sever all Guardian and Tasnican influence from Southern Crystal forever. Bonus points for the payback to House Kurita for their part in ending the Quelban insurgency in Merge.”
“‘Your sources,’” Mako scoffed. “What sources would those be?”
“Your mom,” Bekkler replied, then suddenly honking like an old-timey car horn and exploding into a small shower of pink confetti.
The Porrean and Nidoan delegations stared, mouth-agape, at the pile of confetti that now sat in Norstein Bekkler’s place at the table. The Guardian or Medinan delegations, on the other hand, seemed more acclimated to the display.
“Why should we care if the Protectorate shows interest in Eblan?” Valphia asked. “I had thought that this ‘Gate Alliance’ was for the benefit of Gate, not some pretense for combined foreign adventurism.”
“Can we be clear about what we’re talking about here, for a moment?” Cartwright spoke up again. “No one has actually said that we should intervene… but the lady from Medina, here, seems to be reading between King Derik’s lines. I just want to make sure we speak plainly before we go any further.”
“It may, indeed, come to that,” Derik admitted. “At the very least I would like for the Alliance to come together to offer a statement of support for King Nauquan. Something that leaves no mistake that we will come to Eblan’s aid if the rightful King is threatened.”
“So this statement would… perhaps strongly imply that GATO goes to war if Scande moves against Kurita?” Cartwright said.
“Which is asinine,” Valphia said. “The only people in this room who are itching for war with Scande are the Guardians.”
“Don’t be so sure,” said Dario. Everyone turned to look at the young leader of Chorras as he spoke. “I haven’t always been a fan of King Derik, or of Guardia. But I fought in the Leviathan War. I saw what a Scandian invasion does to a nation. Chorras has little love for either Guardia or Scande… but Guardia is our ally, and King Derik has proven himself our friend. Scande is neither of those things, and I don’t much like the idea of giving them free rein to do to Eblan what they did to Tzen and the Solthai.”
Colonel Itica offered Dario a smile. “I knew there was a reason we Porreans have come to admire you so much, Governor Dario.”
“Speaking from experience,” said Gage, speaking up for the first time, “Eblan is an absolutely vital region to hold, if we are to hold anything in the Crystal Dimension. They have access to the Lower Underground. They hold a relatively major portal cluster just off their coast, trebling the significance of their ports for both commercial and military uses. And the landmass is so mountainous that it would be difficult to invade once an enemy becomes entrenched. Eblan was our last hold-out during the Great War, and because we were able to hold it, we eventually won back most of the rest of Crystal from Eblanese positions.”
Valphia offered Gage an icy stare. But the ex-patriate Baronian couldn’t have cared less: he was a soldier of the Old Breed, and he rightly believed his worth to Medina came more from his experience in the field than his loyalty to a politician.
“Crystalese geographic strategy aside,” Thames offered, “I fear we have little choice in this matter. The reality of the situation is this: whatever you one day hope for GATO to become, the perception is that this alliance is yet another manifestation of Guardia’s claim to Great Power. No one will say it to your face, but there it is. Or, perhaps, you can go out and comb the Web of Worlds for that one diplomat who quivers in fear at the very notion of El Nido’s long shadow just to prove me wrong. Because this is true, it is then also the case that this affair with Eblan shall be our first and most important test. If we fail to make a show of force as a unified front over the matter of the Eblanese succession, we will be regarded as weak. No doubt the Scandians already believe that we are weak, because the Guardian King has somehow seen it as ‘wise’ to just start giving away sovereign Guardian territory to any old rag-tag band of rebels with a claim to liberty. But their belief in our weakness is far less deadly to us than if we were to go out of our way to prove it to them. The survival of this Alliance, therefore, relies on our willingness to disabuse Travin Rumanski of this notion of our weakness with such utter finality that he will lose his desire for all things Eblan.”
“Here here,” said Sir Tancred’s hologram, ineffectually pounding his mailed fist on the conference table (it made no sound).
Derik glanced around the room. “Do we have concensus, at least?”
The Medinan delegation was huddled for a moment. Both Gage and Mako had whispers for Valphia’s ears.
“Admiral Thames manages to be persuasive, in spite of his insults to Medinan sovereignty,” Valphia said. “But if Medina signs onto the Alliance’s statement in support of Eblan, I want an amendment to the statement that is co-signed by all other Alliance members, condemning King Nauquan’s association with human supremacist causes.”
While Gage had no discernable reaction to Valphia’s statement, Mako beamed a self-pleased smile.
“You can’t be serious,” Thames replied.
“I am always serious,” Valphia said.
“Anything but a full-throated endorsement of King Nauquan and support of his reign will read to the Scandians as a sign of division in our ranks,” Thames pressed.
“There is division in our ranks where it comes to King Nauquan,” Valphia said. “In case you hadn’t noticed, most of the delegations of Medina and El Nido are non-human. How could it possibly be in our interests to offer unqualified support to a King who would harbor the Human Nation within his borders?”
President Cartwright was perceptive enough to notice Valphia’s attempt to pull El Nido into Medina’s corner. He wasn’t entirely sure he enjoyed being pushed around by Medina anymore than he did by Guardia.
“With respect,” Doan offered, “This amended may seem reasonable to us, just as Nauquan’s association with the Human Nation seems repugnant. But House Kurita would take it as a slight to their honor. They would view it as GATO seeking to willfully and publicly shame and embarrass their new King. Our relations with them would suffer for it.”
“Nauquan should be ashamed,” Valphia retorted. “And besides which, based on everything all of the soldiers at this table have been saying, Eblan may not quite be able to afford the luxury of being insulted by anything we say. If Scande presses against Kurita’s claim, Kurita would need GATO more than we would need them.”
“Showing the enemy our internal discord is inviting them to attack it,” Thames said. “Including a statement condemning Nauquan would be stupid and suicidal.”
Derik pursed his lips. Even though the number of Gatian nations in alliance with Guardian had grown larger, one thing remained true: Guardia needed Medina. The two nations had always succeeded when they acted together on the Web stage, but often failed when their paths parted ways. If this was the price for getting Valphia on board, Derik would be willing to pay it.
“I disagree,” Derik said, addressing the Admiral. “Just as we must always be willing to strike at our enemies, we must be forthright with our friends. I believe we can help Nauquan to be a better King, but only if we are willing to be honest with him about his troubling associations.”
“Then you are stupid, your highness,” Thames said. Every Knight in the room instinctively laid a hand on his sword-hilt, but King Derik waved them off.
“Maybe I just enjoy making your job a little harder, Admiral,” Derik replied, with a smile. “Lady Valphia, I will support you in adding the amended statement into whatever we announce. King Nauquan will know that we support him, but that we are also displeased with some of the friendships he keeps. In return, I expect that you shall have no problem if GATO appoints Grand Admiral Thames as the supreme commander of any military action that the Alliance undertakes in the Crystal Dimension?”
“Admiral Thames’ competence is well known,” Valphia answered, “But I think General Gage would be more appropriate. His long record of service to the Grand Army speaks for itself, and he is a native Crystalese.”
“Also, I’ve never in my life called my commander-in-chief ‘stupid,’” Gage added, with a cunning grin.
“I would be pleased to work alongside General Gage,” Thames offered, “But don’t be foolish. In the Web of Worlds today, there are only three living military commanders who may be considered undefeatable in wartime. Celiose Cole is the obvious first. Halder Skalice comes second. And I alone, in this room or anywhere else, am worthy to have his name uttered in the same breath as the previous two. You would display only your desire to either lose or win-less-well by not giving me absolute command of the theater.”
There was a brief silence after this. Thames’ arrogance was somewhat breathtaking… but those who knew of such things would have been hard-pressed to argue against his claim to greatness.
Derik mused whether Thames’ speech had hurt his cause. “… What do you say, Valphia?”
Valphia narrowed her eyes. “If Thames is first in command in Crystal,” she said, “Gage will be his second. And we will seek to arrange with King Nauquan to establish a temporary base for GATO elements on Eblanese soil. General Gage will be in charge of this base.”
“Chorras agrees,” Dario said. “When it comes down to lining up for the show of force, you can consider Chorras’ land, sea and aerospace elements at the Alliance’s disposal.”
“Porre, likewise, is in favor of what’s been discussed,” said Colonel Itica. “Though, let whatever record of this meeting exists show that we don’t see the point of needlessly insulting the King of Eblan with Medina’s amended statement.”
Valphia scowled. She would remember that.
“Well, then I suppose little old El Nido will just go along with the crowd then!” Cartwright sighed heavily and placed his hands on the table. “My thanks to our Guardian hosts for inviting us to sit at the adult table. It has certainly been an experience I shall treasure always.”
And this was how the five nations of the new Gate Alliance Treaty Organization responded to the Eblanese succession: they proclaimed their unified support for Eblan, condemned Nauquan Kurita as a human supremacist, and put the fate of the entire Crystal Dimension into the hands of Grand Admiral Malvo Thames.