The World Today

The World Today
Earth in 2013

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Stardust: Towne, Chapter 8

Chapter 8

Major Griever marched down the well lit hall with a mission. Under his arm he carried a briefcase, one that carried notes vital to the war effort. Union Austriaus was not in the war, not yet, but it could not stay neutral forever. Eventually the UA would have to enter against The State and destroy its genocidal dreams. Griever was a middle-man, a forty year old one of excellent health. He spent half his life serving his country, and did so well in the Special Services, the intelligence arm of the Union’s armed forces.

This was the part of his job he loved most; getting out of the office. Meeting new people was fine, but he really enjoyed the going new places. Like this hall for example. Before today, Griever never stepped foot inside Hallomoor University. Nor had he ever the chance to meet the legendary physicist, Professor Eindorf. Eindorf was apparently a recluse, for no pictures existed of him. Nor was there any description within the university’s personnel files. Another perk to his job. Legally, snooping as such without a warrant was a big no-no, but Griever always needed to know who he was going to deal with.

Going for to find Eindorf without any data irked him. He was a combat veteran, back in his younger days. He lead men into skirmishes along the border, and knew that leading men into the unknown was dangerous at best. Suicidal was a better work for it. If one did not know what one was going up against, there was a good chance that one would not walk away. Griever expected no firefight here in the hallowed halls of one of the most prestigious universities in the AU.

Griever stopped at a steel door. Above it lay a plaque with Eindorf’s name upon it. This must be the place. Griever pushed the door open and stepped inside the laboratory. He saw an impressive display of technology. One entire wall of the lab was coated in complex calculating machines. A few computer monitors were lit up in a series of numbers. Griever did not approach close enough to read them. He doubted he would understand them, for it was all in the language of mathematics.

Along side those computers stood many recorders. The sound of tape whirling through the machines, each bit of data being recorded, gave the otherwise silent room much noise. It reminded him of his own office building, where an army of typewriters clacked away all day. Lights blinked off and on, a swarm of fireflies within the machine. The machine was clearly processing something, but Griever saw nobody here, well nobody who could tend the machines.

He did see one fellow standing in front of him. The towering figure, at least two point five meters in height, stood looking at one of the rooms few blackboards. Those boards were a throwback, to a time before transistors replaced chalk. The giant fellow, a specimen of Homo giganticus, just stared at the complex equations upon the board.

Griever tried not to snicker. This janitor, for what else could an ogre be doing inside a university, could not possibly grasp these theorems. Griever had no idea what any of it meant, for he did not speak or read mathematics. He sometimes wondered if any of these numbers and characters actually meant anything, and if the theorist were simply not making things up as they went. More over, the janitor did look a bit silly in his overgrown, white lab coat.

They better not, for if the notes from Doctor Hawk meant nothing, then this operation was all a waste. Professor Eindorf and his fellow physicist were very fearful of any research The State conducted. The operative could not blame them; anybody with a gram’s worth of sense would not trust Naveina. Several elf scientist fled in the wake of the anti-aurumus rhetoric of The Party. They were against any non-sapiens, but really came down hard on the elves. A foolish move, for many of the brilliant minds belonged to elves. A few even now worked within this building.

“Excuse me,” Griever called out to the ogre.

The ogre slowly turned his head. He stared at Griever with thoughtful eyes. Something was clicking upstairs, but who knew what. “Yes?” he asked in a deep, resonant voice.

“I am looking for Professor Eindorf. Have you seen him?” Griever asked, or more like demanded to know.

Eindorf looked back at him with a hint of surprise, and even a twinkle of irritation. He paused to consider his answer, perhaps trying to recall where he last saw him. That would make Griever’s job easier. But that was not what the ogre had in mind. “Can’t say I have. Keep looking, I’m sure you’ll find him soon enough.”

Griever sighed. The ogre had no clue. Swell. That made his job that much more difficult. Curse Eindorf for not having a picture. Perhaps he will give him a piece of his mind once he found him– and after he concluded his business. Without giving the ogre another look, Griever turned on his heals and walked out the lab. Surely somebody would know where Eindorf stirred.

Professor Eindorf continued his consideration on his blackboards. Somewhere, somehow, Ultima Radiation had to fit into his equations describing the Weak Nuclear Force. It just had to. It obviously had nothing to do with the Strong Force, and despite its radiation tag it was not part of the Electromagnetic Force. As for Gravity– that was laughable. Gravity, despite its obviousness, was too weak to do much of anything.

Little was known about Ultima Radiation, except it came from a coating of dark particles surrounding the nucleus of heavy elements. The lay of Cantseeons emitted a force, dubbed Ultima Radiation, were somehow trapped between the nucleus and electron orbits. That lead some of his colleagues to hypothesize a connection with the EM force. Grant it, some Ultima Radiation, ‘magic’ as a laymen might call it, does display some EM properties, but only from yellow dyamascus. The five other colors displayed other universal attributes.

He knew he would never crack the secrets of how the six types of Ultima Radiation worked, but at least he could find out just what it was. That was his goal, his only mission in his remaining lifespan. It just had to be connected to the Weak Force, for those heaviest of elements were unstable, and did radiate EM radiation and neutrons. When either broke through the layers of Cantseeons, it must disturb them.

Eindorf glanced over at the computer console. Infernal machines, it was no help what so ever. Sure, it processed and double-checked equations at near light speed, but that was it. It had yet to give him a single idea, except replacing it with another board. He rubbed the bridge of his nose, feeling another headache coming on. Or perhaps coming in. Behind him, he heard a nock at the door.

“Professor?” Eindorf recognized the voice as one of the gradstudents. Yes, he was a future physicist in the making, but he had a couple of decades to go before he could reach Eindorf’s level. The professor wished he had as much time as the young man.

“Yes?” Eindorf asked. His deep voice always startled those who first encountered him.

“You have a guest.” Eindorf turned away from his work reluctantly. His kind did not have time to waste. The gradstudent stood, reserved and ready to leave. He too had work needed finishing, and did not want to keep away a moment more than he must. Commendable. The other one– the guest, Eindorf recognized immediately. He saw the suited and well groomed man no more than ten minutes previous.

“Professor Eindorf?” the visitor asked.

Eindorf smiled, showing a row of large teeth. “I told you, that you’d find him.”

“I’m terribly sorry,” whether he was or not, Eindorf could not wager. He knew for a fact the man was rather embarrassed about his earlier mistake. “I had no idea that you’re–“

”An ogre?” Eindorf asked with a chuckle. “Not many do.” At thirty-six, he was an ogre approaching the end of his natural lifespan. Due to their large size, and the ancient engineering that created their genome, they seldom lived past forty. He knew the mysteries of Ultima Radiation would not be solved in four more years. That made interruptions all the more annoying.

“I feel like a fool,” the visitor told him. “Without pictures, how was I suppose to know?” He was not apologizing any more than he was explaining. Explaining to himself, trying to justify his mistakes. He was not one who error often.

Eindorf shrugged. “The university doesn’t like to advertise, for reasons you can surely understand.” Ogres were stereotyped into positions of remedial labor. Only a few ever rose above those low expectations.

He quickly reorganized himself. “I am Major Griever, from the office of Military Intelligence.”

Eindorf nodded. “So you are. Now if you have business here, Major, please get on to it. My time is short,” a slight smirk at his joke, “so make it snappy.”

Griever was not a man used to being talked down to, not even when his opponent was a meter taller and up to three times his mass. He picked up his briefcase and dropped it on the nearest table, careful not to disrupt the small centrifuge. He opened the case and drew forth papers. Eindorf could see a couple of binders within the case. “Your country needs you. I have here notes that my superiors would like you to look over.”

“I’m a Professor of Physics at Hallomoor University, not a proof reader,” Eindorf told him coldly. “Why do they want me to look them over?”

Griever gave him a smile. “They come from the office of Doctor Hawk. Now don’t ask us how we came into possession of them.”

Eindorf was still skeptical. The major came this far, he might as well glance at them. He flipped through the notes, not spotting anything unusual. A few formulas, and Eindorf recognized them. They were similar to the ones who worked on. Hawk’s work made him think the Weak Force approach was right. Hawk seems to believe that dyamascus atoms can be split, the same as uranium. More over– Eindorf’s eyes went wide.

“Professor?” Griever asked, after a minute passed.

“There are more of these?” he asked impatiently.

Griever nodded. “Two binders full. Hawk was a busy man.”

“You will leave them?” Eindorf asked, putting the notes on another table.

“I could, but I’d have to stay too. I have my orders to guard these–“ Griever explained.

“Fine, fine,” Eindorf agreed. He quickly reached for his telephone. The receiver was ridiculously small in his giant hands. He had to pick up a ball-point pen to push the buttons. His fingers were big enough to push four at a time. He quickly dialed his number.

“Trellor, please,” Eindorf said into the phone.

“Speaking,” the crackling voice on the other end replied. “Eindorf, to what do I owe this pleasure.” Trellor was one of the researchers who highly doubted the Weak Force approach, but a very competent mathematician. Eindorf would grant him that.

“Some notes were just delivered to my lab, courtesy of Doctor Hawk. It’s a breakthrough. I think you better get the gang together; they’ll love this.” Eindorf said, and waited for a reply.

“Astounding!” Trellor replied, after his third look over of Hawk’s equations. “Certainly crushes my theory, doesn’t it?” Trellor was as arrogant as a sapien scientist with two doctorate degrees could be, but was man enough to announce when he was wrong– after enough evidence buried him.

The shortest of the gang, a gnome quantum theorist named Deutron, gave his own opinion. “Well, this is amazing. Professor Trellor admitting a mistake.” The two went through graduate school together, which was testament to Trellor’s age. At seventy, he was second oldest. Only the gnome, at one hundred ten surpassed him. Deutron was in general physics until five decades ago, when quantum theory was first developed. He saw that as the coming thing, and changed careers. The luxury of a very long lifespan.

“There is plenty of merit to these works,” came one of the younger researchers, Mento. He only received his doctorate a few years ago, and was still treated like ‘the kid’. “The figures on decay do support Professor Eindorf’s hypothesis. A shame we could not trade notes earlier.”

“A shame they could not flee that cursed land,” though he was not the newest researcher, he was the most recent arrival in the AU. Evernaught was one of the few elves to flee The State as soon as The Party took over. The Party drove out many of its brightest minds. Evernaught did not worry about his former homeland, for in the AU he was treated no differently than any other scientist. From what he heard, Hawk willingly served The State, and attempted to recruit others to what he called the inevitable victory.

“Just telephone service would suffice,” Mento told him.

The elf shook his head. “No it wouldn’t. Those butchers do not deserve such theorists within their ranks.” Whenever an advance in science was made in The State, Evernaught worried. New technology in their hands would be another stab in the heart of the allies. “And I don’t like what these figures tell me.”

Griever stood against the wall, keeping an eye on the documents and an ear open. He only had a scant knowledge of the notes, only what his superiors decided he must know. “Then it is possible? They can split dyamascus atoms, just like uranium?”

Eindorf nodded. Fission was known for the past decade, and widely studied in experimental reactors. Due to Towne’s old age and low amount of heavy elements, there has never been enough uranium mined to do anything other than study. Not enough for a commercial reactor, not even enough to make a fission bomb practical. Just one such warhead would deplete an entire nation’s supply of the heavy metal. “I’ll have to run it through the computer, but yes it does look like a runaway chain reaction is possible. And perhaps with far less dyamascus than uranium.”

“An Ultima Bomb,” Griever muttered the ominous words. As if the possibility of a bomb splitting uranium atoms was not bad enough.

Professor Sellar, Eindorf’s old mentor, snorted. “A rather dramatic name, but not accurate.” This device would be a fission one. Once the nucleus split, it would unleash all that energy into the layer of cantseeons, which in turn would instantly liberate all the ultima radiation in one burst.

If that happened over a city– “You do know that we can’t let The Party get their hands on this,” Evernaught declared. He knew better than any other the foul schemes the enemies of mankind cooked.

Eindorf glanced over at the Major. “Major, we’ll have a report for your superiors before the week ends.” And Eindorf knew he had a letter to write. He wondered if the president would even read it.

Half a world away, beneath the tropical sky, a petrol-electric train came to a stop in an old, brick station. The only thing added in the past fifty years were skylights. All those usually did was give the thousand commuters a train a clear view of the rains from indoors. But not today, today the sun shone and turned the windows a dull red. As the train screeched to a stop, Andreas was one of the first commuters to stumble off the crowded car. He almost forgot how miserable the commute could be while away. Almost.

He did recall enough to book first class tickets for himself and Katrina. Otherwise it might take the better part of an hour to disengage from the masses. As it were, first class was cramped enough. He managed to escape that crowd, and land right in the middle of another. Passenger compliments were about a thousand, and the station would soon have twice that; half coming and half going. Andreas lead Katrina through the mess like a seasoned navigator. If this were any other country, pickpockets would be a concern. Andreas smiled every time he thought about common thieves. They would have to be either desperate or stupid to try and steel from the mob. The dwarves particularly do not take kind of others swiping their belongs.

It had not happened yet, at least not in Contra. In this scattered suburb, almost everyone recognized Andreas. If not by face, then by attire. The farmers and factory hands that comprised most the town’s populace wore common clothes, nothing nearly as tailored as Andreas’s suits. They did not bow nor tip their straw hats. They did, however, get out of his way as he moved. A few did greeted him, but Andreas was not interested in small talk today.

None were disappointed for none expected much out of him. Andreas kept on his mask of cool expressions. He always kept others at a distance, even his buddies within Golden Hammers. Andreas learned long ago about connecting with others. He also learned that those others tended to end up dead. How long would it take for Katrina to suffer the same fate. A long time by Andreas’s estimation. He was not trying to get close to her.

The two finally managed to break free of the station and began their march down Contra’s dirt roads. Only about six thousand called this mis-matched network of roads home. The town itself was evenly divided by the rail tracks. The train continued to make its ruckus, letting all know that it was ready to depart. On the immediate sides of the rail stood a row of factories. They went up within arm’s reach of their shippers. Government ran distilleries, canneries and a lone cigar factory, employed most of the town’s work force. The rest worked in the fields, the same farmland from which Contra sprouted.

Just like other small towns, an open air market jammed the main street. Farmers called out to passer-byers, trying to grab their attention. The People’s Government did not own everything. Though they subsidized basic nutrition, they did not provide everything. Farmers made up the rest, growing extra foods from watermelons to pineapples. Most of these foods are not exported, but rather spread around the island for domestic consumption. The bazaar was such a long standing tradition that not even the Tropican Worker’s Party could abolish it. And why should they? The People’s President often did his own shopping in the more sophisticated markets of Tropico City.

Unlike the capital, several kilometers away, the roads were only clogged by foot and cart. Horses, moas and even a lone paracophant with her dull green plumage, waited by their carts for their humans to call it a day. Katrina looked around and saw not a single truck However, she did notice a few autos. By their look, they were older than her. Those designs were even less sleek than the millions of AMCs crowding the continent’s roads. More over, the autos in Contra looked to have seen better days. Each one of them had at least a single dent in its doors.

“Terrible drivers,” Katrina muttered as she passed one rusted wreck. Did it even work any more? It certainly does not looks to have moved recently.

How could it? With so many Tropicans packing the streets, it was difficult for a human to move, let alone an auto. She quickly forgot about the stationary auto as Andreas lead her through the crowd. Andreas did not forget, he knew what made those dents. He was also glad not to own an auto. It would have its own dents in it shortly. That was the problem with living in the suburbs, dealing with the boneheads.

Where Andreas took the cosmopolitan attitude for granted, Katrina noticed every little details. Every species of human mingled in the crowd, both buying and selling. Even both species of gobli were available, trading just as freely with each other as with the humans. Katrina recognized the goblins with ease. In fact, one ran a little ice cart, peddling frozen fruit kebabs. A few gobli had darker green skin and larger eyes, and kept as far from the crowds as possible. Those must be gremlins, a species so rare that they might just be a legend.

They did not shrink from the light as ancient legends tell. In fact, they did not seem the least bit bothered by the dull, red sun. Though they may be shy by nature, they competed just as rigorously as anyone else. Tropicans prided themselves on treating everybody the same. Equality among species was a cornerstone in socialism. Whether they be sapien, pygmaeus or even a gremlin, the workers of the world must unite.

Such unity was widely advertised. Many posters lined the visible walls. Katrina took a look at one of the red posters. It had a picture of Towne’s globe, and the word beneath it read ‘Revolution’. Several revolutionary themed posters were scattered around the street, some on lamp posts, some in shop windows. Katrina knew propaganda when she saw it, and this was blatantly so. What shocked her more was the statue on the street corner. It was a likeness of that obnoxious man. Katrina pointed it out to Andreas.

“Oh yes, Niceto is quite popular,” he said, glancing at the statue of the People’s President.

“Megalomaniac is the word I’d use,” she muttered. After a life in The State, she knew better than to criticize loudly. She was a foreigner in this land, the locals might just turn her in. Andreas would not, but who could say about the rest of the Tropicans.

The two passed through the market without buying a single thing. The sellers did not seem to mind, in fact they hardly noticed. With so many customers, who would missed a couple of sapiens? Once clear of the street markets, traffic thinned out to a few locals going about their business. They did not go far from the rails. Furthest from the rails were the free longhouses, home to many Tropicans. Closer were the pleasant little country homes. They too were owned by the state, but those who lived their paid rent.

Andreas was one such resident. His was a green house, ideally matching the gardens sprouting in his small yard. Every house was like that. Unlike Shownastadt, there were no grass lawns here. Any space available to residents was put to good use. In Andreas’s case, potatoes, corn, tomatoes, chili pepper, carrots and various other produce that could not be determined from a distance.

Andreas opened the gate and walked down the stone pathway. Katrina followed him a few steps before stopping. She took a look around. It reminded her of a little farm house, like the ones that surrounded her old home. The house was a small one too, could not be more than a single bedroom. The front door was a bit battered, just like the autos. Above, on a perch sat a– Katrina was not sure what it was.

“What’s that!” she exclaimed, pointing towards the house.

Andreas did not even bother looking where she pointed. He just smiled. “That would be Sentry.”

“A pet?” Katrina asked, looking up at the creature.

Andreas laughed, “More like a roommate.”

Katrina continued to stare at the animal. He, at least Katrina assumed the bright plumage meant this animal was a male, sat on the roof, just like a chicken might sit on a perch. He just looked down at Katrina with a curious glance. He knew Andreas, but not this new human. The blue and orange Towneform, cawed like a raven as Andreas approached.

“I ain’t dead yet bird!” Andreas called at him. “Just ignore Sentry. Falconeers are great mousers, but lousy conversationalist.”

“They eat mice?” Katrina asked.

Andreas shrugged. “Figure of speech. But they do eat the birds that like to eat my garden, so we have a working relationship.” His gardens did look nice, even after his long absence. He can see the groundskeeper he hired did an admirable job. Guess that means he would have to pay him a bonus too. He even left the pile of leaves alone. The keeper knew just what Andreas wanted. “You see that pile of leaves?”

Katrina nodded. “I see it,” she said plainly. A damp pile of leaves did seem a bit out of place in his yard. Every other square meter was put to good use, except that corner of his house.

“Try and touch it,” Andreas told her. “Go ahead.”

Katrina eyed Andreas with suspicion. As she walked towards the pile, Sentry’s head shot up. His dark, eagle-like eyes locked on to Katrina. Did this human dare violate his space? Yes, yes she did. The moment she picked up a couple of wet leaves, Sentry hoped forward. He cawed loudly, his voice more like an angry rooster than a crow. Katrina dropped the leaves and spun around. Above her, the falconeer batted his stubby, flightless wings. He strutted around the roof top, his head bobbing fiercely.

Not too far from her, Andreas laughed. She took her gaze away from Sentry and bored into Andreas. “That’s not funny!”

“Yes it is,” Andreas dared to dispute. He looked up at Sentry, “Yes, yes, we know. Those are your leaves. Tsk tsk, Katrina, don’t be touching his leaves.”

Katrina’s face went red with fury. “You–“

”I couldn’t resist,” Andreas tried to wave away her anger. “Calm down, would you? The neighbors are going to hear you. Let’s go inside and fight; it’s cooler and dampens the sounds.”

Katrina’s anger simmered as she followed Andreas. While she walked towards the door, her eyes and Sentry’s kept an eye on each other. She did not trust that two meter long creature, and Sentry felt the same about this strange human. As soon as he was convinced his leaves were safe, Sentry went back to his perch above the door. Katrina was not convinced that he would not jump on her head, so she rushed indoors quickly.

“Did you get mad at your house?” Katrina asked, pointing at the door. “Perhaps forgot your keys and tried to kick down the door.”

Andreas nodded. “Oh yes, all the time. Except I tend to shoot the door.”

Katrina’s eyes narrowed. “Then why is their a dent in it?”

“Boneheads,” Andreas replied, as if that answered everything.

“I don’t see how your attitude did that,” Katrina sniped at him.

Andreas sighed. “No, boneheads,” he repeated. “Birds about the size of falconeers, but twice as massive. They like to ram things.” The bonehead was one of the largest Towneform still found on Tropico. Most of their bodies were covered in orange feathers, same as any other Towneform. However, their heads were bald. Instead of a crest, they sported a thick bone plate, up to twenty millimeters thick. When trying to impress a mate, the males will ram each other, or when startled, they will ram whatever scares them. In this case, Andreas. “I opened the door one day and a bonehead was in the yard. I scared him and he rammed me. I slammed the door just in time. Poor guy just stumbled away afterwards. I imagine Sentry got him eventually.”

That explained why all the doors in Tropico were so thick. She never seen such heavy doors in all her days. It was more like a portal to a fortress than a little homestead. Katrina forgot about the door quickly and took around what Andreas called home. The place was tidy and rather spartan, with just plain, bare walls. Beneath her feet was a thin red carpet, almost more for show than anything else. It did not look capable of handling moving furniture or any other heavy wear.

Only four pieces of furniture sat in the main room. She spotted a tan couch in one corner, and an old worn chair in another. Between them, a solidly sealed window displayed the yard outside. She noticed that too about Contra; no open windows. Andreas’s only modern technology was that of a bulky radio sitting near the chair. In the far corner, a metal locker leaned against the wall. The blue metal gleamed on the electric light above.

“Bright enough in here?” Katrina complained, squinting at the orange light above. It was almost brighter than the sun. Almost.

“I was thinking about installing a spot light,” he retorted as he opened the lid to his mailbox. It was built into the door, and had its own dent to boot. The mail box was full of an astro’s worth of mail. Most of it is probably junk, but he would sort it just to be sure. No telling when one of his coworkers might be dropping him a line from some far away station.

“It’s chilly too,” Katrina said. She heard the constant hum of air conditioning. “Can’t you just open a window?”

Andreas snorted. “Sure, if you want Sentry to wander in. Or worse yet, the hobblers. They’ll eat you out of house and home in no time.” Because of the native wildlife, most notably the little hobblers, not many windows in Tropico opened. Instead, the government provided air conditioners and generous electricity rations. Naturally, if anyone went over the limit, the difference came out of their wallets. The Tropican Worker’s Party made an effort to provide the basics, but Progressives, Centrists and Libertarians that made up the other forty percent of the People’s Congress fought to make luxuries available and cost.

Katrina stood in the middle of the room and took another look around. She could see the bare kitchen from where she stood. Its floor was wood, but aside from that, it was little different than the main room; just plain, tidy and bare. What did Andreas eat? Did he even cook? She did not expect it to be a mess, not when he has not even been home after so many days. Still, there was something unsettling about an unused kitchen.

Andreas noticed her watching the kitchen. “Get you something to drink? Have rum and Tropican Punch. I can boil up some water in a few minutes.”

Katrina shook her head. “I’m not thirsty. I– I don’t know. I just wish I wasn’t here.”

“That hurt,” Andreas feigned, clutching a phantom wound in his chest.

“Am I to stay here for the rest of my days?” As she asked, she looked for somewhere to sleep, somewhere that was not the floor. If that was his answer, she would sooner sleep with the falconeers.

Andreas shook his head. He lacked any desire to have her, or any other human to live with him. “No, we’ll go find you a place tomorrow. A place to stay and a job. I can set you up with one in the company.”

Katrina shook her head violently in opposition. “Out of the question. I will not work for a criminal organization. Say what you will, underground is still illegal.”

Always the purist. Andreas expected as much. She never did fancy the mafia, she held it with almost the same contempt she held the whole socialist system. “Suit yourself. I know a few people who owe me a favor. Perhaps one of them could use one with your skills.” Whatever skills those might be. He knew she was a teacher, and she could type and she could work numbers. What might pass for basic education for her, would be quite advance here. She should have no problem getting a skilled labor position.

Katrina smiled. “Thank you.”

Andreas looked back at her with shock. “You know, I think this might be the first time you thanked me.”

“It might be the last, too,” her expression turned back to her typical combative mode.

Andreas was content to just let it slide. “Nonetheless, I’ll find you a place. It might not be the most extravagant joint, but it’ll put a roof over your head. After you get some money, you can go rent your own house if you please. After that–“ Andreas could only shrug. “Perhaps when the war is done and over, you’ll get to go home.”

Katrina gave him an upside down smile in return. Just what was she doing in Tropico after all. This was a bad idea. Maybe she should have took her chances in Port of Dreams. She gave up on trying to wake up. If the nightmare has not ended by now, it was not likely to do so any time soon.

“After that, I’m not sure how much we’ll see of each other. I’ve got my work, and after the meeting today, I think I’m going to be busy for a while,” Andreas sighed, feeling defeated. Feeling like a failure. He wanted to fix all he damaged, but he was nowhere near repairing her life. “I’m sorry, Katrina. I wish I never got you into this mess.”

Hearing Andreas’s apologetic tone got her thinking about that lost puppy, and about what Petro said. She knew nothing of Gustavus, only that Andreas blames himself for what happened. “Don’t worry about me, I’ll manage.”

Andreas did not push her words away. He was too tired, too defeated for the day for that. Instead, he plopped down in his chair and leaned back his head. “It might take me a while, but I’ll make it better. I won’t fail this time.”

After a few days of working, Andreas fell back into his routine as if he never left it. Even with war looming on the horizon, there were still shipments to send, payments to collect and competition to squeeze out of Golden Hammer’s market area. They ruled the underground in Tropico City and throughout the northern half of the country. Anybody who wanted to make shifty deals in their zone had to buy a business license and pay a tariff. Bad things happened to those who did not pay. Andreas shut down more than one rival company trying to set up shop in and around Tropico City.

Every astro the other dwarven mafia companies try to franchise in Tropico City. And every astro somebody had to push them back. It was very precise work, these company squabbles. The one supreme rule, the constant for mafioso, both sapien and pygmaeus, was never, ever hit a noncombatant. As long as the mob kept the general populace out of the mess and only killed each other, then the People’s Government was content to look the other way– as long as “taxes” were paid.

It was a corrupt, yet well balanced system. Andreas sometimes wondered where he would be had he not hooked up with the dwarves about ten years ago. Probably some dead-end job in the factories, or maybe one of the state-owned plantations. However, his luxurious lifestyle did have its share of hazards; namely, the other guy always trying to kill him. In the factories, at least Andreas would not have to worry about some suave dwarves cutting him down in a drive by.

When Andreas started out enforcing tariffs, he never would have imagined landing his own office. Yet here he was, inside Golden Hammer Enterprises’ corporate headquarters. When he left for his last mission, he was but a made man, working under Ghulam. Since returning, the boss decided to put him in charge of his own crew. He was a captain now, in charge of the whole westside. All the operations from Fort Arnold, west across Contra and all the way to the western Croissant Hills ringing Tropico City.

It was not the biggest operational area, far from it. His only real responsibility was to make sure the tariffs were paid, the underground shippers had up-to-date licences and to make sure the unions pay their dues. In other words, he had endless reports to read, phone calls to make and very little time to go out and work himself. He suspected the only reason he was promoted is because he was a sapien. Dwarves, and their gnomish brethren, were notorious for avoiding management positions. Work was in their blood, and it was not their way to sit behind a desk while others bust their backs.

Then there was the meetings. The endless meetings. This was suppose to be the dwarven mafia! Dwarves never had time for meetings, that sort of thing got in the way of real work. Keeping operations organized was a necessary evil dating back to the dawn of human civilization. His secretary, yes he even had to employ one of those to keep his schedule in tact, stuck her head through the door. “Ghulam is here to see you.”

Andreas eyed his blonde assistant. If the dwarves were going to give him one, they should at least make her younger than he. This one had to have twenty extra years on him. “Let him in,” he told her. She might be getting old, but she always stayed on the ball. Talent and skill won out over looks.

An impeccably trimmed beard dwarf strolled through the door. Ghulam covered himself in Tanimo tailored wears these days. There was not classier suit on the whole of the planet. “How are you doing today, Andreas?”

Andreas gave him an exasperated look. “Buried.”

“That’s the spirit!” Ghulam called out. Being buried was never a bad thing, not to a pygmaeus. They lived underground. Every dwarf who owned a house, owned one on the surface, and one that was several times larger directly beneath it.

“I don’t mind pushing crates, but I can’t stand pushing papers,” Andreas told him, trying to bring him back into focus.

Ghulam nodded. “I know how you feel. But, it must be done. Like we always say, ‘no good work goes unpunished’.”

Andreas was starting to wish nobody ever noticed his own quality of work. “For an industry that’s theoretically illegal, there sure is a lot of documentary.”

Ghulam shrugged. Records must be kept and the numbers must be balance. He glanced back toward the entry. “I’m surprised that you don’t have that sheila working the door.”

Andreas had to think a few seconds before understanding. “Katrina? I offered to hook her up with a company job, but she declined. Told me she wanted to earn her money honestly.” Instead of a well paying job here, she landed one that paid half as much. She now worked as an accountant and assistant in Contra’s corner drugstore.

Ghulam laughed heartily. “Who doesn’t!”

Andreas stared down his old friend. “What do you want, Ghulam? I’m sure you didn’t stop by my office just for idle banter.” Dwarves were never really one for small talk. Wasting time was not in their blood.

Ghulam frowned. “I wish I did, but I have bad news. I just came back from the People’s Palace. Looks like The State’s already left the starting gate.”

“Figured as much,” Andreas told him as his eyes slide over to a copy of the People’s Daily. At the top of the paper, in bold characters, it read ‘Rhodes Falls’. Like all newspapers in Tropico, this was overseen by the state. Andreas wondered just how much of it was impartial, and how much hyped. From what he read, Rhodes gave up without a fight. They surrendered on the day The State crossed the border. Just crossing the border was an achievement of its own. A whole army had to drive down the Swamp’s western highway, and not get trampled by angry dragons, and that was just to reach the border.

Rhodes has fallen– or rather its politicians have. A few soldiers escaped, but more importantly, most of its navy sailed south and defected upon the surrendering. As stipulated in the treaty forced upon Rhodes (according to the People’s Daily), Rhodes was to turn every last ship over to The State. It appears the admirals and captains were not about to give up their ships. They sailed south, with two aircraft carriers, a battleship, several smaller ships, and countless aircraft fled to Tropico.

Andreas heard the drone of engines all morning. A majority of aircraft built could only make the flight one-way. Bombers could make a round trip, and fighters with drop tanks, but that was about it. That was what made the escaping carriers, the Capital and the Sovereign so important. Combined with the People’s Carrier Revolution, they could thwart any invasion. However, Rhodes had three carriers. No word was given on the third.

“From sources that I’m not at liberty to divulge,” when Ghulam said that, he meant Tropico’s global revolutionary network. “The State has massed its fleet with its captured ships a ways outside of Rhodes. They’ll be setting sail any day now, and you can guess where they are headed.”

Andreas sighed. Well, at least with a war, paperwork will take secondary importance. “Just let me know when they’ll be here. I’ll take every last foot soldier and even runners from my district and put a Typist in their hands.”

“Not so fast,” Ghulam held up his hand. “You can’t do that. Do you have any idea how much money we’ll lose?”

Now it was Andreas’s turn to laugh. “The State wants us gone. Being dead won’t help profit margins one bit either. Now a couple astros loss we’ll get over, being dead will take a bit longer.” It was only then did Andreas realize the folly of his rush to return home. He returned just in time for a war. For bombs to fall, shells to burst and homes to burn. If The State ever landed its army, Tropico was in a world of hurt. With only forty thousand regular soldiers, Tropico and all its people would have to rely on hundreds of thousands of citizen-soldiers, of the nation’s various militias– including the resident mafia companies.

“I know that,” Ghulam grumbled. Afterwards, he could just shrug. “The boss will decide what to do when the time comes.” That was a half-truth at best. Dwarves always thought ahead, and the boss no doubt already knew what to do on a number of occasions. All that remained was to find out which eventuality would pass

“If your sources are right, then that time will be soon enough.” Andreas went back to his reports without a further comment.

“Just be ready,” Ghulam told him before leaving to meet with others.

Andreas shook his head. Yes, war will be coming to Tropico. Of all the possible things Andreas could worry about, his mind focused on Katrina. He had work to accomplish and this was no time to think about her. She was not part of the company. Yet, he could not stop. He brought her all the way to Tropico after landing her in hot water with the Knights. No doubt, the Knights will be landing right behind the invasion force, dealing out their worlds of pain.

They would recognize Katrina as a Naveinan. Just her being in an enemy land with bring forth retribution. If they ever radioed in a background check and learned she escaped from them once– needless to say she would not be escaping twice. Terrific. He tried his best to fix the mess he caused, and in the end, he just delivered her back into harms way.

Andreas knew his responsibility in the matter. If anything happened to her, it would be on his head. He would have to live with that guilt, knowing he destroyed her life. Andreas did not want any more guilt laid on his shoulders. He already carried enough to equate the mass of a small asteroid. Yes, it was just a matter of responsibility. If she did something foolish and got herself killed, then he could forget about it and move on.

Or so he thought. She was a fine woman, and when she kept that mouth of hers under control, she was a rather charming one at that. Some feeling of affection did swirl around in his head, but Andreas swatted at them the same way he would flies. More than a year passed since his last date, not counting the whole trip with Katrina. That one, like the ones before, decided he was not worth knowing after all. She just wanted to meet him, get to know him. She had no intention on any of committing.

Given the chance, Katrina would do the same. She would hurt him the same as the rest. In the end, each woman in his life lied to him. No matter the pain, he always tried again. With a scarred up heart, what was one more cut? Nothing much. Just another chip of his humanity nicked away. Perhaps one day he will meet one who can say what she means and mean what she says. Andreas was not about to hold his breath.

Despite all the pain, he only blamed the women passively. He held most blame for himself. For his failings. After what happened to Gustavus, Andreas doubted he was even worthy of love. He was sick of the guilt, sick of the thoughts and doubly so of the memories. The only solace he held was that memory lasted only as long as mortality. Once he was dead, he would not have to remember anything. Of course he would not be able to dance when dead– but working in the Golden Hammers, he long since learned nothing came without a price.

After a few minutes of thought, he found his work less than lacking. He was like an old time steam engine out of steam. He would now have to trudge through the paper work half-heartedly, or less, than his normal low enthusiasm. Now, with his inner self in turmoil, he would do his best to reach tomorrow. After that– it was one less day to worry about. Maybe he should have stayed home to begin with, never traveling up north and never meeting her. As he well knew, it was too late for ‘should haves’. It was time to stop thinking about the past and start focusing on the future. At least with the future, he might have some say in it.

A thick canopy of orange and green passed quickly below. Numerous flowers were visible upon the lilies. Red, yellow, blue and even the shimmering of ultraviolet. Humans called the Towneform flowers black. Yamasee always considered humans funny little animals. Their limited range of vision limited them to the ‘visible spectrum’ as they called it. Yamasee never had to worry about that. His sharp eyes could see into the ultraviolet and even a bit into infrared. His altitude dropped by almost a meter, so he added another beat of his wide wings to keep him aloft for another instant.

Though black dragons spent much of their time at water level in the swamps, Yamasee could see new sources of prey from the air. He occasionally patrolled his own territory from above in search for concentrations, but not today. Today he flew with a purpose. Ok, every day a dragon took to the sky, it was for a good reason. The act of flying consumed enormous amounts of energy, which only meant he must eat that much more. Better to stay submerged, or stalk from the undergrowth than to waste energy being airborne.

Today, the normally solitary dragon flew to meet more of his kind. Every so often, dragons did get together in neutral ground, just to talk. To discuss events of the world, to ponder philosophically, and to exercise their minds. Being extraordinarily intelligent animals, they must converse and trade ideas. If not, the solitude would drive them crazy. They must have regular mental stimulation.

Some times dragons would speak to other animals. Few animals on the planet possessed languages. The various species of humans were one of them. Dragons often spoke with them– as long as the apes respect their territory. The giant ones, the ogres were often most environmentally friendly. But Blacks were a talkative lot, and would try to exchange ideas with sapiens and the short guys.

As for other species, the gobli were out of the question. Millions of years of history between the two genera was not forgotten so easily. Goblins and gremlins did their best to steer clear of dragons, and Yamasee was not sorry to never see them. He was, however, unusual for his kind. Though most Blacks were bilingual, he was trilingual. His territory lay on the edge of the ocean, in a mangrove swamp. Often the language-bearers of the sea would enter his waters seeking fish. Admittedly, the language of the dolphin was trickier to learn than one of a human, but he learned it nonetheless. Those marine mammals had the most interesting outlook on life.

Yamasee caught a glimpse of the opening. A small hill rising from the swamp. It was a relatively dry meadow in the middle of the dragon’s swamp. He easily spotted four other black outlines in the orange field. Each of the dragon’s heads turned upward to meet his gaze. His presence made them instantly uneasy, but only for a moment. They quickly overcame their territorial instincts and recognized him as bearer of news. Otherwise, their instinct would be to rise and confront the intruder– though it was only neutral grounds.

“What news have you brought?” asked the dragon nearest towards Yamasee’s landing spot. Kona continued. “I spotted another convoy of their armored vehicles driving south. The third in two days.”

“And I spotted their four engine aircraft flying south,” Tuli told the dragons. Her territory was closest to Rhodes than any of the others. “They keep landing in Rhodes.”

“Are they staying put?” Yamasee asked. He knew enough about humans, same as any dragon, to worry when they start moving in masse. Like the others, he also knew they fought a war across the continent, with increasingly destructive weapons.

“No,” Tuli hissed. “They are flying south across the ocean, destination unknown. Ever since Naveina conquered Rhodes, the newspapers and radio stations have stopped running. Honestly, these humans– how will they learn anything if they shut down information outlets?” The thought of controlling information never crossed a dragon’s powerful mind. Their intellect exceeded a human’s but they simply could not think like an ape. “No matter how imperfect their media may be.”

Krelko let out a low rumble. “These apes are doing their best to destroy each other. Normally I wouldn’t mind letting them, but as you know, technology evolves fast during war.” More over, humans had no shortage of warfare.

“If they existed as one, as they did when first arriving on Towne, then perhaps the technology would slow,” Tuli began her normal speculation. She loved to tackle what ifs and temporal problems. “All this competition only stimulates their growth.”

“Ah, but remember Tuli,” said the oldest dragon, Vango as he held up a talon. “They were significantly more advance when they arrived. That is until their empire ripped itself apart.” Vango knew much about the history of Towne, and maintained the computers within the Dragon Vault. He also kept methodical notes on every little event he noticed. Occasionally, he managed to haggle a book out of a human traveler. Perhaps he should have staked claim to land closer to Rhodes. It was a sound idea, as long as he forgot the fact Rhodes did not even exist when he settled down.

“They are aggressive with or without technology. The planet would be better off without them,” Kona noted. “As stimulating as it is to converse with them, eventually their populations will grow so large they will press against our lands.” The word ‘our’ was, ironically, a lone from the humans. A solitary animal had little use for a word that indicated possession by more than one individual.

Each of the dragons knew Kona spoke the truth. Where ever dragons do not live, the humans have already cleared away the landscape and built their cities, fields and pastures. Soon, they may turn their eyes to fertile dragon land. A hundred years ago, it would be no worry. Dragon’s hide was interlaced fibers, capable of stopping anything they could throw at them. But now, now with their aircraft firing armor-piercing rounds–

“We can’t stand by and let these apes continue to traverse the swamp. If we do nothing, these armies might get it in their heads that they can go where they please. They must learn respect.” Kona’s land was close to the highway, and constant traffic pumped noxious chemicals into his lands. The prey did not take well to carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulfate.

“Disposing of vermin is the consensus elsewhere,” Yamasee told his fellow dragons. He already stopped at a few other gatherings today. He made himself a messenger, organizing the dragons to effectively eliminate the ape intrusions.

“I agree,” Krelko lowered his head onto an open hand. “We can not stand by and let these human run free any longer. They already have theoretical knowledge of quantum physics, and even built experimental fission reactors. How long until they start using what they learned against each other. Though the world has few fissile elements, it would be enough to trigger fusion reaction inside warheads.”

“Many others are prepared to enter the Dragon Vault,” Yamasee informer the eldest dragon.

As the oldest, he was in charge of the Vault. Vango let out a long hiss, a dragon sigh of sorts, “Who would have thought we’d ever have to use weapons again.” As such a naturally powerful animal, with an intuitive feel for the forces of nature, dragons were not accustom to taking up weaponry. Each dragon knew what it meant, it meant a danger came that they could not handle with talon or breath. Within the Vault, they maintained weapons of such power, they could easily wipe humanity off the face of Towne. For now, they will only use those that could destroy human machines of war with ease– and the devices that would protect dragons from artificial harm.

“Spread the word, Yamasee,” Vango told him sternly, the closest a dragon would come to commanding another of his species. “All of you, do the same. Check out all the meeting grounds, seek out other dragons. Let them know; we can no longer tolerate the human’s impudence, and the Vault will be open before sunrise.”

Niceto wished he were elsewhere, almost anywhere other than a war council. Ideally, with one or two of Tropico’s lovely ladies, traversing the pristine beaches, dining at the finest pubs. Alas, that was a pleasantry that must wait. From all those in the room have told him, the Naveinans are already on the way. He sat at the ‘head’ of a round table. As the People’s President, he did not want to be treated any different than the next man. With a round table, there was no head, even for the Head of State. Besides, these men knew far more about war than he. All Niceto knew about was how to run a revolution. Overthrowing the Traditionalist was rather easy– since they already managed to alienate the whole populace. Never before had he faced an opponent as heavily armed and determined as The State.

The People’s Commanders laid out several options before Niceto. Though they were all comrades, the constitution clearly labels the president as having final say after war has been declared. Even if war has not been declared; the People’s Congress would be convened after the meeting, where Niceto would tell them what the commanders are telling him. Obviously, war would not be declared until the first of the Naveinan bombs fell on Tropican soil. According to his generals, that might be tomorrow.

“Flights of A12F2s have spotted the Naveinan combined fleet,” declared General Neville, Commander-in-Chief of the People’s Airforce. “They’ve spotted four battleships, and the light carrier that was unable to escape port when Rhodes surrendered.” He held some of his contempt in check while addressing Niceto. All of them knew Rhodes was betrayed, its leaders gave into The State’s demands without even a fight.

The People’s Navy commander, Admiral Veign, spoke up. “We do have a slight edge on cruisers and destroyers from what recon flights say,” Navy men were by nature suspicious of the Airforce. Air power threatened prize-fighting battleships.

General Torus, People’s Army, saw the situation as for what it is. “If the airforce and naval air wing coordinate an attack on the enemy carrier, it will even the score. Without their air cover, The State would be forced to retreat, else our bombers will sink their big guns, and our ships will sweep away what’s left.”

Niceto nodded. “What sort of invasion force are we looking at?”

“Approximately sixty thousand,” General Grot explained. “Operatives still in Rhodes have reported an initial invasion of six divisions. They will outnumber our regular forces. I’ve already ordered seventy-five percent of our regular army into the capital.”

Niceto already consented to the deployment. “The militia will be called out in the event that we can’t destroy their fleet before they reach our shores.”

“The concept does have its merits,” Veign considered the idea as a risk. But not too much of one. Tropican carrier-based planes were little more than interceptors, but the two Rhodesan carriers were packed full of specialized bombers and torpedo planes. As for the Airforce’s A12F2s, they had both range and fire power to deal with ships.

Niceto eyed the head of the People’s Navy. “I sense some doubt in you, comrade.”

Veign nodded. “Destroying the enemy carrier would do little but chase the Naveinans away for the time being. Their invasion force and all its weapons would be free to return to the continent, and either launch a second, larger attack, or be deployed elsewhere. Our best course of action is to destroy the invasion force.”

“And how do you propose to do that?” Neville asked. As far as he could see, the enemy carrier must be sunk first, in order to keep their escort planes from guarding the landing force. “When we destroy their air cover, they will just as likely pull back same as if we destroyed the carrier.”

“Perhaps,” Veign was not as convinced. Naveina has always been, and may always be, a land power. They have few ships, and those they had were forced to sail around from the north of the continent. Only then did they link up with the more modern counterparts captured in Rhodes. “The transports would turn around, unless they have already landed their cargos. In that case, the transports are little more than empty vessels.”

“Surely you’re not suggesting we let them land on our shores?” Grot exploded. Just like the navy to dump their problem on to the army. “As proud as I am of the People’s Army and its fighting spirit, the Naveinan Army fields armor and artillery far in advance of anything we have. To them, our equipment is second hand from the last big war.” The last big was about thirty year past. When it ended, airplanes still had piston engines and wings covered in canvas, and tanks were little more than armored autos with machine guns sticking out the doors.

Grot continued. “Their armored cavalry has armor twice as thick as our’s, and a main gun of one hundred millimeters. Their field guns also sport twice the caliber.”

“They can’t possible land more than half the number of tanks we possess,” Veign replied. “It is a simple matter of outnumbering and outflanking them.”

“Yes, at first,” Grot pointed out. “But they will land more, and more until they overwhelm the People’s Army. And where will the People’s Navy be while this is happening? Guarding the pubs?”

Niceto listened as the two rival branches of the People’s Service argued. This was one of the reasons he so loathed meetings. Not once in all his years as president had a meeting gone by without an army-navy conflict. Niceto had to cool things down if anything was to be decided upon. “General Grot has a point. Not about the pubs, but about follow up landings. If they secure a port, they can ship in as many weapons as they please.”

Veign held up a cautionary finger. “If, Comrade President. If.”

His words caught everyone’s undivided attention. “What do you mean ‘if’?”

Veign smiled. “I do not propose inaction, just delayed reaction. They do not know precisely where the Free Rhodes’ Navy lays anchored. They may assume it fled south, but what if it did not?”

Niceto raised a brow. “You have something in mind.” He did not ask, he merely stated the obvious.

Veign nodded. “While the enemy lands, the People’s Navy will link up with its Rhodesan counterparts near the mouth of the Ola River. That would be far enough away to keep Naveinan eyes from spying them, until it is too late. We will wait until their invasion is in full swing, and the bulk of their forces are on land. That will be the point of no return. Then, we will strike their fleet and sever their supply lines. Thus trapping the enemy on the beach.”

“They’ll suspect a trap!” Torus immediately pointed at the flaw in his plan.

Veign shrugged. “Not if the People’s Airforce attacks with all its heart. You only have to damage them a little, make them think you’re trying.”

Niceto nodded in agreement. “It could work. The Naveinan leadership has such a low opinion of the Revolution that they may assume us incapable of diverting their attack.”

“And,” Veign followed up. “With their fleet destroyed and no hope of supplies, the invasion force will eventually exhaust its ammunition. Since most of our guns use fifty millimeter, as the Comrade General pointed out, is smaller than the enemy’s weapons can handle, they will be unable to rearm.”

Grot began to see the plan. “Some of our field guns use seventy-five, same as their medium tanks. That is an issue of great concern, as with them capturing our weapons. Their Party might not think much of us, but their soldiers will use our own weapons when it comes down to the choice of; use it or lose it.”

“There is danger, but think of the advantage of forcing an entire Naveinan army to surrender. Nobody has done that, and we will be the first,” Veign did love his own idea.

Niceto saw the logic in it, but there was more to being the People’s President than logic. “Is it worth the civilian death toll? I will not sacrifice the people to save the people. We all know some of their so-called Knights will be right on the heels of the army. And we all know what they will do.” The words need not be spoken. Tropico has a relatively high percentage of non-sapiens as citizens. They will be instant targets, same as any member of the Tropican Worker’s Party.

Veign frowned, his brow growing deep with wrinkles. “Comrade President, this plan is not without risks. No matter what plan we take, the people will be targeted. Destroying their fleet beforehand will only make them send wave after wave of bombers. Either way, the people will suffer. But, if Tropico is destroyed, then all the suffering will be in vein.”

“The admiral is correct,” Neville agreed, partially. “He is correct about suffering in vein, he is not correct about their bombers destroying our cities. Surface-to-air missiles will down many of their bombers.”

“Down them over our cities,” Veign corrected. “And our fighters will be marginally successful, assuming their infrared tracking missiles don’t turn around and blow themselves up.”

“If they make it that far,” Neville wore the smirk of a man who knew much more than he ever let on about. “Comrades, as you know, we have all been planning for the eventual attack. We all know The Party’s ideology leaves no room in the world for socialist solidarity. Where as you have been building more ships and more tanks, we in the airforce have been building new aircraft. I assure you that no enemy bomber would survive encountering the People’s new interceptor. In fact, when they face it, they won’t even know what hit them.”

It sounded a bit boastful to Niceto, but he knew General Neville was not a man to act smug unless he had something substantial to back it up. “I have your word on this?”

“Yes, Comrade President, naturally. The interceptors have already flown and outperformed anything on Towne. They shall keep the skies clear of bombers.” Mostly anyway. Nobody in the room believed every single enemy bomber would be downed before these new aircraft ran out of missiles and bullets. As with every attack, something always survives.

That wrapped up concern over threats from the air. Even if these interceptors did not live up to Neville’s boast, the distance enemy bombers must fly would limit their payload, and their sorties. “What of the ground element? There is still the issue of The Party’s butchers.”

Grot slammed his palm on to the table in a loud clap. “The People’s Army will make the enemy fight for every meter of Tropican soil.”

Niceto smiled, beside himself. “The fighting spirit of the People’s Soldiers is never in question. What is, is can you keep the enemy from reach the capital?”

Grot nodded slowly, as if to say yes– probably we can. “The Naveinan will have to fight pass fortifications and trenches, expending much of their ammunition. Despite their advance ground combat elements, attrition favors the defender.”

“Comrade President, I would like to deploy some of the militia along the northern beaches. At any point that could serve as a landing site,” Torus requested. He knew Niceto would agree with his analysis, but protocol always required permission. “The militia can delay the enemy on the beach, perhaps not stop them, but delay them long enough for the rest of our forces to be properly deployed. Without forward defenses, the enemy might grow cautious, but with it, they will grow overconfident.”

Niceto did not like the idea on principle. Torus was, in effect, willing to throw away the lives of those militiamen to trick the enemy. Niceto did not want to waste any of the people’s lives. The only thing worse than waste is to die for nothing. “Do it, but amend it. I want the militia to fight, but not to the last man. When they are in danger of being overran, they are to break into smaller units and harass the enemy.” To this, Torus nodded.

Niceto looked as the people’s top commanders. There was great risk in this plan. To allow the enemy to land would put the people in danger, and if the navy failed to defeat the enemy, reinforcements would pour onto the island. Niceto really disliked this part of his job. He now had to make a decision, one that would literally change the future of Tropico. His word could either bring a decisive victory or utter ruin. He drummed his fingers on the table, weighing all options. No matter which he chose, some of the people would die. Too bad ‘no war’ was not an option. He would pick that in an instant. Still, better it come now, then after Naveina has defeated its continental enemies and can turn its full might Tropico’s way.

What bothered Niceto most was that no matter what he decided, history would not be kind. If he does nothing and lets them land, then he will let some of the Tropicans die. If he does order their fleet destroyed, they will just return later, and kill more Tropicans. They would be rather vengeful after a defeat. In the end, he was forced not to think of Tropico, but to think of his enemy. Which outcome would hurt them most.

“Very well, Admiral,” Niceto said with finality. “I suspect you already have a plan formulated, so I want the four of you to work out the details. I expect a preliminary report by dawn’s light.” Niceto pushed himself back from the table and stood. Before departing, he leaned forward, “And General Neville, I want to hear more about these new interceptors of yours. You should not keep secrets from the People’s President.” Inside, Niceto hoped the army and navy had a few surprising secrets up their sleeves. The People’s Republic of Tropico is going to need every last trick to carry the day.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Stardust: Towne, Chapter 7

Chapter 7

Andreas strolled down the gangplank, and away from the Emerald Marenave, like he was walking on air. Home. It was so great to be back home. He took a deep breath and instantly recognized all the tropical scents he knew from day one. As with any day, the docks in Tropico City were bustling to the point of bursting. He quickly left the gangplank and stepped onto the dock. He picked up his pace the moment he landed on concrete. A dozen concrete piers jutted out into Turtle Bay, most of them at the mouth of an old dried up river, one that long since lost its name. Each pier was currently home to a ship, a freighter either loading or unloading cargo. Mostly the former. Coffee, sugar, rum and cigars were all destined to the far reaches of Towne, whether those goods were welcome or not.

Much to his minor dismay, he did not step off the boat alone. After thinking long and hard about his offer, Katrina decided she could not stay in a strange city alone. Nor could she venture on to the People’s Republic of Tropico, or so she thought. Stay or not stay, doomed one way or the other. Katrina decided it was better to stay with the doom she knew than ride out the unknown. No matter her decision, she knew she would regret it.

Her first impression of Tropico was quite the opposite to Andreas’s. She wrinkled her nose at the ocean, and its stench of rotting grass. Seaweed bobbed up and down next to the barnacle encrusted pier. The water looked filthy, dirty, and probably loaded with toxins. Run off from farms and factories likely flowed in the former river channel. If this was paradise, then paradise was certainly over rated.

The pier was crowded with longshoremen and teamsters. Both groups wore filthy clothes, the type that must have seen a few years– and not astronomical ones either. The workers were thinner than the ones she would have seen working back home. They worked harder too. Only a handful of forklifts were visible, and most of the cargo was pushed up ramps by hand carts and backbreaking work. Despite their obvious hardships, not a one scowled in anger. In pain perhaps, but none were angry. A few even whistled while they worked.

Further away from the ocean she moved, the more of a mistake this all became. Andreas lead her away from those docks and out on to the street. She was surprised to see it paved; from all she heard, they still used horse or paracophant drawn carts down here. Grant it, a few did, but they seemed out of place on black asphalt along. Sets of tracks ran right down the middle of the road, and on those tracks road several trolleys. A few sported new paint, but most appeared as they were; vehicles that have been left out in the tropical sun too long.

Autos did occupy the road as well, but mostly small buses and bright yellow taxis. There was something odd about the way they all drove, something that got her thinking of mirrors. A few seconds passed before she snapped her fingers. “They’re driving on the wrong side of the road!” she declared. All her life, she only seen autos driving on the left side of the road, as was the case across the entire continent. But here, on this island, the autos moved on the right. She never before seen anything so surreal.

“No, they drive on the correct side of the road,” Andreas corrected her with a smile. “You ever stop to think that maybe we’re right and everyone else is wrong?” He did not look back to see one of her patented glares. Instead, his eyes were fixed on a bus or tram he knew would head his way. He must make contact with his coworkers as soon as possible. The sooner the better; he would prefer to get the grilling over with so he could get back to work.

Taxis came and went, a jumbled mess as each tried to vie for fare. After spending the most of a thousand dinar in Port of Dreams, he did not want to spare anything he absolutely did not need to part. He eventually discovered a trolley headed his way. The social gathering place favored by Golden Hammer Enterprises was only a couple of blocks away from the People’s Palace. Only a couple of roads headed that way from the docks. Andreas tossed in a couple of dinar for fare, one for himself and a second for Katrina. He was still trying to decide what to tell his buddies about her. The Secretary wanted to gun her down the moment she ran– would he still want to? Would anyone stop him?

Katrina climbed aboard the trolley car and studied its interior. A dozen two-sided benches lined each side, with a thirteen covering the whole rear and a fourteenth covering the front .At least she thought one was the front and the other the rear. Either of the far benches, which took up the entire width, were already full of passengers. A single man stood in the center of the trolley,. He reached up with one hand to grab a cable, his other hand took a lever that stuck from the floor. The conductor– or at least the operator.

She and Andreas were the only two to board at the docks. A few men, dressed in coveralls and blue shirts, dropped off and headed off to work. Aside from those dockworkers, the rest of the crowd, both men and women, dressed like factory workers. Andreas told her about the factories here, and Katrina could spot one down the road. It was a small, skinny building. Half of its roof gleamed in the sunlight. A skylight let in much lumination and cut down on electricity. She could see the power plant’s towers beyond the cigar factory, it’s smokestacks belching out black smoke.

She could taste some of the factory exhaust in the air. It was not the scent of industry, of steel mills, though she did pick up the unmistakable aroma of burning coal. “What is that smell?” she asked Andreas. The moment the words came from her mouth, the nearest Tropicans’ gazes turned at her, and not in the friendly way. They were not hostile towards foreigners, but they did not share much love for Navenians.

Andreas sniffed, “what smell?” Andreas took a few more sniffs. “Oh that. Haven’t you ever smelt burning molasses before?” When Katrina shook her head, Andreas continued. “No, of course not. There’s a distillery not too far from here. A couple of them, if I’m not mistaken. Isn’t that so?” he asked the nearest worker.

The worker, an older man wearing wrinkled slacks and shirt, nodded. “It is. By the smell of it, I’d say they’re using some young cane.” Katrina knew little about rum, except it was distilled from sugar. The State discouraged even teachers from learning about certain subjects, and alcohol was one of them. Why know anything about a banned substance, it was not as if one had the opportunity to put such knowledge into practice. Now that she was here– she would probably learn fast. Safer than the water according to Andreas.

Katrina took another look around, and found it hard to avoid unfriendly stares. Yes, the Tropican rum worker did sound drastically different in accent. Even Andreas sounded different. Or to paraphrase him, perhaps Tropicans sounded right and everyone else wrong. She just looked past them and at the apartment blocks, and their free cousins the tenement. Apartments were colorfully painted, albeit faded with too much time under the red sun. The tenements were all the same color, a dull metallic blue. They owe their metallic look to aluminum siding. On an island where wood would rot within a blink of an eye, that struck Katrina as rather prudent.

Katrina found herself an empty seat and sat herself just before the trolley continued its routine. She sat across from Andreas, who enjoyed himself. Katrina supposed she would be the same way if she could go home. Unlike him, she could never return home. Even if she tried to slip into another colony of The State, he identity would eventually catch up with her. As soon as that happened, it was all over. She was now truly an exile, a woman without a homeland.

Her gaze continued to wander across the sights of Tropico City. A minute passed before they passed the first of the city’s many distilleries. The trolley came to a full stop in front of steel structure. Its entire front, at least Katrina assumed it to be the front, had a large door in the middle, surrounded by a mosaic of glass. The building reflected brilliantly the pulsing sunlight, causing her to glance away momentarily. She watched as many of the trolley’s passengers disembarked and trudged in for another long day of hard work. She could only imagine the hardships within, especially in this heat. Even with the temperature over three hundred degrees, thin smoke still escaped from the distillery’s twin brick smoke stacks.

The trolley picked up once the last worker stepped off. Nobody stepped back on, not this early in the morning. She did not suppose many honest folk would frequent the People’s Pub in the morning. Andreas told her they cook an excellent breakfast, but she was skeptical. A drinking establishment first thing in the morning– utterly suspicious. She now had meeting underground business men and other criminal elements to look forward to. Since most would be dwarves, nervous was a good word as any.

Lost in her thoughts, she did not notice the trolley come to another stop. “This is my stop,” she heard vaguely.

Katrina blinked and came back to life. “Right,” she said, standing up and quickly pursuing Andreas. She found their stop rather disappointing. It sat along side a sideroad, one made of brick opposed to asphalt. It was narrow, perhaps not even wide enough for two autos to pass each other, and crowded with pedestrians, bicycles and even a minibus. One thing she was starting to realize about Tropico was its lack of orange. All the plants she seen thus far were green Terraforms. She heard Tropico called the green isle long ago.

A dilapidated open air pub, with half of it out under open sky. The open half remained vacant at this early hour. Andreas already told her it boomed with life when the sun set. The indoor area, though not enclosed, did have a roof. The large window frames lacked glass but made up for it in rose vines. The flowers did give the drab exterior a much needed color. Aside from that, it was not a place she wished to visit. Yet she followed Andreas this far, and she saw no point in quitting now.

Andreas took one step into the People’s Pub and took in a deep breath. It was like hitting a wall made of the scents of rum, cigar smoke and that awful rotgut dwarves love so. Andreas smiled at the smell, for it was the smell of home. Nobody bothered to look up from their breakfasts when Andreas entered the pub. He was well known here, and would not draw any attention. His thirst began to grow as soon as he set eyes upon the shelves behind the bar. Hundreds of bottles of various rums and wines were so dense, he could barely see the mirror behind them. He was told the mirror made the place look bigger, but he did not know why. The pub could easily house two hundred.

And there was indeed quite a crowd at the bar. Sapiens and pygmaeus alike congregated and a few locked in intense conversation. Some leaned up against the pale white walls. Andreas did that once or twice before. He glanced around at the many pictures hanging from the walls. Some were paintings, others photographs. A lot of the photos were that of the Revolution, of when the people ousted the aristocratic Traditionalist Party. That was twenty-two calender years before, back when Andreas was but a toddler.

The pub was around back then, and after the Traditionalist were purged, the pub changed little– except for electricity. That powered an assortment of neon lights, each flashing a brand name of rum. They hummed and flickered in the morning light, and lacked the effect normally seen at the dark of night. Nor did the fact that nights drew in maximum capacity on an almost daily basis. Too bad Golden Hammers did not own the place, that would be some major coinage. As it was, the government owned the People’s Pub, and received all its profits. Profit going to the Tropican Worker’s Party did seem a bit paradoxical, but it beat paying taxes.

“Haven’t seen you in a while,” the cook called out. He was an old man, gray hair and battered face. He worked years out on a plantation in the hills, tending coffee fields for some aristocrat. He was but a peasant at the time of the Revolution, and quickly joined the ranks. As far as Andreas knew, he been working in the pub since it ended.

“How you doing, Petro?” Andreas waved at him. “Lively crowd this morning.” Andreas had to speak up over the crowd– or at least one of the crowd.

“Now there’s a voice I never thought I’d hear again,” came a voice from the bar. A short, stout man sat on the table and swivel to meet Andreas’s gaze. Andreas could not tell if that was a smile or snarl behind the beard.

“Long time, no see, Ghulam,” Andreas told his colleague, or perhaps supervisor was a better term.

“Don’t be acting like nothing’s wrong!” Ghulam snapped. “Where have you been for the better of an Astro? You been any later and we’d have to put out a hit on you.”

Andreas took a half-step back and spread his arms in peace. “Calm yourself. I was stuck in Port of Dreams–“

”We gathered that,” Ghulam replied before Andreas could finish. He figured as much. The moment Andreas withdrew money from his account, the Golden Hammers would know his exact location. “You been there a whole week?”

Andreas shrugged. “Missed the boat. Had to eat and sleep.”

Ghulam’s stare turned cold for a moment, but only a moment. It warmed up instantly as the dwarf tilted his head back to laugh. “Missed the boat! That’s rich, real rich. How on Towne did you miss the bloody boat?”

“It’s a long story, pal,” Andreas told him. He would have relayed the story right then and there, except Ghulam’s gaze went past him.

“You brought the sheila!” he exclaimed, instantly deciding this was the worse choice Andreas ever made. “No wonder you’re late.”

Andreas’s face flashed. “That’s part of the long story.”

“You must have gotten sweat on her to bring her down here,” Ghulam chuckled.

Andreas did some snapping of his own. “It isn’t like that! We can barely say three words to each other without arguing.”

Ghulam gave his trademarked snort. “Sounds like every relationship I’ve seen.”

Andreas lowered his voice. “What was I suppose to do? Leave her stranded like a little lost puppy?”

“You always did have a soft spot for the little guy,” Ghulam said as a matter of fact. He then gave a shrug of his own. “Too late to worry about that now. Word of warning, the dragon’s in the henhouse.”

Andreas smiled. “And how is Niceto?”

“President Niceto?” Katrina gasped, partly out of shock– that a leader would mingle with the masses so casually; and partly out of disgust– for Niceto’s revolutionary ideals and socialist ideology.

“None other than,” Ghulam told her. “If you’re feeling brave, say hello. Just watch out for his charm.” The People’s President had more charisma than he knew what to do with. He was a political genius and master speaker. He was also an legendary womanizer– though he preferred the term ‘ladies’ man’. Despite his failings, he had an aura of charm that just kept anyone from staying mad at him. Which is exactly how he stayed president for twenty-two years and the Tropican Worker’s Party kept a sixty-one percent majority in the People’s Congress.

“I should say not,” Katrina replied with venom. She had nothing to say to the head of a socialist state.

Andreas could only sigh. She was quite the stubborn one, no two ways about that. “Looks like you won’t have to.” Before Katrina could piece it together, another voice answered her question.

“Andreas, my friend, where have you been?” A well groomed yet plainly dressed old man came his way. He was old, but only barely, only but a couple years past fifty. His hair had already started to fade. Andreas was surprised it had not done so already, not with the weight of the island on his shoulders. Parent’s hair tended to go gray before those without children, so being the president should make hair color far scarcer.

“Long story, Niceto,” Andreas replied with a grin. No matter his mood, he could not help but smile when coming into contact with the president’s eternal good mood. “Needless to say, I had a little run in with The State and had to take quite the detour–“

”And miss the boat,” Ghulam added with a deep chuckle.

Niceto shook his head. “Andreas, we can’t leave you alone for a minute, can we?” To this, Ghulam laughed an agreement. Niceto kept his gaze as friendly as ever, but it suddenly shifted. Shifted from friendly to captivated. “And what do we have here? I see you brought a friend with you.”

“It’s a long story,” he repeated as he glanced back at Katrina. She stood, rigid and defensive at the unwanted attention. “This lady here is Katrina.”

Niceto reached forth to grab her hand. “Always pleased to meet a beautiful lady. I am Niceto, the People’s President,” he brought her hand up to his lips and kissed her softly. “Perhaps we can get better acquainted.”

Katrina ripped her hand away from is grasp with a fury, “In a pig’s eye.”

Niceto’s eyes open with surprise. “A Navenian. Well I shall not hold that against you– I see why you missed your boat. If I was in the Port of Dreams with such a fine specimen, I would have missed the boat too, and the one after that.”

That brought forth a chuckle from Petro. “Comrade President, if you had a dinar for every beautiful lady to turn you down, you would be a rich man.”

Niceto’s face showed not anger at the jibe, but a wide smirk. He reached into his pocket to withdrawal a wallet. “I have a dinar for every lady to reject me,” he showed Petro an utterly empty wallet. This drew a round of cheers and laughs from the resident mobsters.

“He hasn’t changed,” Andreas told Katrina, not expecting anything less from the People’s President.

Katrina expected nothing, except to make her intentions perfectly clear. She reached into the side pocket of her denims and drew a single coin. It was a Marasuanian, worth more than a Tropican Dinar, but it would work. “Here you go,” she said, flipping the coin at Niceto, who caught it with ease. “Don’t spend it all in one place.”

Niceto’s face went still for a moment. He was not known for a temper or snapping. After such a blunt rejection and public humiliation, there was no telling how any man would react. Niceto reacted in his typical way; with a laugh. “I like her! She’s feisty!” He said, then he added with a lower voice. “A bit of a cold fish, though. I’m sure the Tropican sun with cure that.”

“Don’t be on it,” Andreas told him, in a less-than-low voice. Katrina only glared at him, the same as she had for the past astro.

“Only time will tell,” Niceto said with finality. “Now if you’ll excuse me my friends, I have work that must be completed. The People’s business is never finished.” Niceto left as he arrived, alone and without any bodyguards. Most leaders would not dream of such a thing, but not Niceto. The People’s President had no fear for his life. He was beloved by the people. He was cheered as he departed.

During the cheering, Ghulam grabbed Andreas by the arm. “Come on, we’ve got a meeting of our own, and you’ve missed too many already.”

Andreas nodded, he was ready to get back to work. “Wait here, Katrina, I’ll be back in an hour. If she wants anything, Petro, just put it on my tab.”

Katrina watched as Andreas and his dwarven buddy disappeared into the pub’s only private room. It had the label ‘party room’ above its twin doors, but Katrina could not tell what sort of party it referred to. She hoped Andreas would not be too long, for she did not fancy staying in such a shady joint. Especially not after her encounter with the country’s head of state. The nerve of that Red, trying to come on to her. He had to be at least twice her age.

Katrina stood there for a moment, trying to determine her own course of action. What was she suppose to do while Andreas conferred? Maybe she will sit down an order herself a meal, a good one at that, the type that would raise his tab by a hundred dinar. That would teach him to go off and leave her alone in a strange land. Katrina, being from The State, was totally ignorant on the exchange rates. She did not realize the Dinar spent in the Port of Dreams were worth thirty-seven times as much as a Tropican Dinar.

Worst of all, once that impertinent president left, so did most of the sapiens. Aside from the cook, Petro was what Andreas called him, she was surrounded by dwarves– or rather pygmaeus. Some might be gnomes, but she could never tell the difference. Andreas did try to explain it to her. She understood the difference, but she could not tell them apart any more different than she could tell two sapiens of different nationalities apart. She could not tell a Rhodesan from a Maralonian, for they both dress and talk alike.

Katrina’s feet grew tired of standing, so she took up a stool at the bar. No sooner than she sat did Petro walk up to her. “What would you like, ma’am?”

Katrina looked at him curiously, not expecting any service. “You wouldn’t by chance serve café latté?”

Petro smiled. “Tropico has about every type of coffee ever served. One café latté coming up.” He turned away and walked over to a rather large brewing machine. She scantily noticed it as she walked into the pub. With all the alcoholic stench, she never once thought it was a coffee maker. Petro brought the machine rumbling to life. It barked and howled like a mad dog. A few gears grinded like they have not seen oil in ages. Petro gave the temperamental machine slap of his palm. “Stupid machine,” he was herd grumbling.

After a minute of wrestling the coffee machine, he brought over a steaming hot cup of café latté. Katrina took the cup into her hand and gave it a long sniff. Its aroma was far more pleasant than the sludge served aboard the Emerald Marenave. She tried that once, and only once. She resolved to stick with water for the duration. Sure enough, the latté tasted far better too. Not to mention was the freshest she ever drank. She savored the flavor like she would never seen, or taste, another cup for the rest of her days.

“So fresh,” she said to noone.

Petro caught her words. “Beans came from the hills yesterday. Only way I could get it fresher was to pick the beans myself. I’m sure the dwarves would, if they’d just stop drinking that rotgut they call booze.”

“You can’t get any better than a bottle of Starshine,” said a gruff voice three seats to Katrina’s right. The dwarf was busy shoving scrambled eggs into his beared maw, and did not have a bottle or shotglass nearby.

“Starshine?” Katrina asked the cook.

Petro shook his head. “It’s some noxious compound they get from fermenting and distilling mushrooms. That’s what the distiller who sells me the bottles says anyway. If you ask me, I think it’s the main ingredient in some sort of neurotoxin.”

“It’s got more kick than your mother’s milk of a rum,” the dwarf called back.

“It’s got enough kick to start an auto’s engine!” Petro retorted. “I would be pouring it into the tank too, if it didn’t cost ten dinar a liter. Probably get better fuel economy to boot. I tell you Katrina– that is your name, no? The only time one should consume dwarven spirits is when one is trying to kill tapeworms.”

Katrina managed a faint laugh at Petro’s humor and exchange with the dwarf. Despite all The State drilled into her, this dwarf was not a bad guy. Different; yes. Different species; most certainly. But evil; no, just rough around the edges. She even wondered if he was a gangster. One might assume everyone in the pub belonged in that category. That one would be wrong.

Katrina could not help but feel a little down, seeing as she is the alien here. “Why did Andreas drag me along so far?”

Petro heard her question and had not taken it as rhetorical. “Drag you?” Katrina explained to him how they first met. Normally she would be suspicious about strangers, but there was just something about Petro that made him feel trustworthy. She tried to keep her tone neutral when she told how she ended up in custody because of him, and how he came to free her.

“I’m not sure why he did it. He told me he just felt responsible,” Katrina finished. “It’s nice to find a bloke who is man enough to take responsibility for his mistakes. You know him better than I ever could, why do you think he’d go through so much trouble?”

Petro looked uneasy. “I figure it’d have to do with what happened to Gustavus.”

“Who?” Katrina asked. She never heard that name before.

“Careful there, Petro,” the gruff, tough dwarf barked a warning. “Andreas might not like you talking about– his past.”

Petro nodded. “True enough. Can’t tell you much more, ma’am. Don’t want to rub a Golden Hammer the wrong way.”

Katrina said nothing. She wondered just who this Gustavus was. An old friend? A relative? Something must have happened to him, something real bad. Andreas always kept his distance and his cool. Perhaps that cool, which often turned cold, hid something unhappy behind it. She continued to nurse her coffee as she thought. She wanted to know more, but Petro said nothing further about Gustavus as soon as the dwarf hushed him. She would make it a point to ask Andreas about him. That is if he bothers coming back for her.

Andreas suffered minor whiplash as Copper slapped him on the back. “Glad to see you in one piece, you’re body anyway. I heard you brought that sheila with you, so I can’t say the same about your mind.”

“If I have to say ‘it’s a long story’ one more time, I’m going to shoot somebody,” Andreas said with a hint of twitch in his voice. He did not like repeating himself, not in the least bit. “Maybe I should just wait for the meeting to start and announce it one last time. Or perhaps run an article in the People’s Paper, front page; ‘What Took Andreas so Long?’.”

“Stop the presses!” Copper hollered loud enough for other dwarves to look his way. He could not help but laugh at his own foolishness.

Andreas looked around the room, and noticed he was the only sapien in the midst. The Golden Hammers was predominately pygmaeus, but Andreas was not the only made sapien in its ranks. “Where’s Madrid and Hayward?”

“On assignment,” Copper told him. “Madrid’s at our offices in Corona, and Hayward’s checking up on our operations in Rhodes. I hear The State might be moving against them soon, but Hayward volunteered anyway.”

Andreas nodded. Made sense, after all Rhodes was an old ally of Tropico. Even after the revolution, they kept on being allies. Some where obsessed with politics to the point of destroying lifelong friendships. Rhodes was not one of those; they were by far more interested in commerce than anything else. They shipped thirty percent of Tropico’s exports north along the Dragon Swamp’s two railroads– at the pleasure of the dragons anyway. If not for the fact the railroads serves as convenient borders between individual dragon territories, they might not even exist. Those were one genus that loathed any development.

Andreas took a seat at the long table. Fourteen other mobsters lined either side of them. All were bearded, and all were a century older than Andreas. He was ‘the kid’ here. Despite the revel a sapien might take in rubbing his noise in youth, pygmaeus did not seem to care. As far as a dwarf, or gnome for that matter, cared, if you did the work then you got the job. Besides, when one lived upwards to two hundred fifty years, one was not so obsessed with the years that pass and those ahead.

At the head of the table, the oldest of the dwarves, pounded a worn gavel on the table. “Calling this meeting to order. So nice of you to join us Andreas, I was beginning to think you retired.” Several dwarves chuckled lightly at that. In the Golden Hammers, the usual way of retiring was feet first.

“Not a chance, boss,” Andreas said, wiping any suggestion of his demise off the table. “I wouldn’t miss this for anything.”

“Uh huh,” the boss, known as Bronzemane, replied. He knew Andreas was a hard worker, and prided himself on his quality. “You’ll be happy to know, the package was delivered, and our contractee was quite pleased.”

Andreas smiled, pleased with himself. He almost forgotten why he ended up in Shownastadt to begin with. Whether those notes were for a government who wanted to keep tabs on The State, or a rival university wanting to upstage Doctor Hawk, it really did not matter. He had a job to do, and he did it. Bronzemane did not ask Andreas what took him so long. He must have known Andreas made a withdrawal in Port of Dreams and slapped the pieces together.

“Now our first order of business; this astro’s profits,” the dwarves droned on about how everything was up. Since The State conquered so much land, and banned so many products, the underground did better business now than it ever did in peace.

As soon as the numbers trailed off, far more pressing matters came to the table. “Our industry, along with several other ‘businesses’ have came under the scope of The State. They want us shut down,” Basalt spoke here. He was a black-bearded dwarf, who had his share of contacts in Tropico and Rhodes’ governments.

“What else is new,” Andreas said with a shrug.

Ghulam glared at him. “A little something we ran into while escaping Shownastadt.” His glare added a few more words, such as ‘had you accompanied us instead of chasing skirt, you might know what it is too’. “I’ve already gone over this with the boss.”

Bronzemane nodded. “It’s serious this time. Serious enough that Niceto is worrying. Go ahead and tell them, Ghulam.”

Ghulam cleared his throat. “When coming back, we had to take a long detour mucking through the Dragon’s Swamp. Columns of soldiers were massing north of the border in Langoon, with tanks, big guns and the like. That’s all we seen. The Secretary wanted to go charging like a rhino at them, and took us long enough to drag him away.”

“We only spotted that mass, but you can bet you account there’s more,” Copper added. “I spotted a few of their swept-wing airplanes buzzing over the swamp.”

Andreas did see this as a bit thin, but one thing was certain. One thing was set in stone; nobody entered dragon territory unless they had a plan. The dragons, even the sociable Blacks, did not appreciate large groups of humans in their space. And that swamp was all that separated the rest of the continent from Rhodes– which happened to be a mafia terminal.

“They conquer Rhodes and half our business with go up in smoke,” another dwarf, one named Silverthumb declared.

“No doubt,” Bronzemane echoed. “However, I met with Niceto earlier. He voiced a bigger concern over the Rhodesan Navy falling into the Naveinan’s hands.” Andreas saw the worry there. With Rhodes’ ships in their hands, The State would have a force that could tackle the People’s Navy, and with Rhodes in their hands, their air force could bomb Tropico with ease.

“We talking imminent invasion?” Andreas asked.

Bronzemane nodded, but gave no vocal conformation. “Niceto’s got word that the Navenian fleet is sailing around from the north to join whatever it captures in Rhodes.” The State is all around a land power. Its navy is pathetic by world standards. Through its conquests and treaties imposed, their victims surrendered their navies to The State. Many ships, in fact most, did manage to flee into exile. They found safe harbor in allied states and continued the fight against the occupiers.

Andreas knew better than to ask how Niceto knew. When and where the revolution is exported, plenty of eyes and ears followed. The fact that Tropico’s fifth largest export is the revolution is enough reason for the survivalist Navenians to want to crush any socialist states. They certainly had the motive, and if they moved fast enough, the means as well. With all those captured ships, they might just well smash their way onto Tropican soil. The People’s Navy and Air Force would do its best to stop them, but it might not be enough.

“In fact, Niceto is so serious, he’s calling in our favors,” Bronzemane explained. He need not explain the favor part. That referred to the Tropican government’s ability to turn a blind eye at the massive underground industry working within its borders. Most nations would shut it down, but while Tropico gets its share of ‘taxes’ it was content to ignore them. But now there was an actual price.

“Do I even want to know what that would be?” Copper asked with a sigh. Like everyone else in the room, he had an idea what that favor was going to be.

Bronzemane smiled, showing a set of well-worn choppers. “No, but you’re going to hear it anyway! He wants to conscript all the businesses. He wants us to be militia.” A series of groans came from the dwarves. The only thing that interested them was working, it was simply their nature. Anything that interrupted their work irritated them. “Calm yourselves, we won’t be wearing uniforms. When the Navenians invade, we will take up arms against them the same we would a rival business. The only difference is, we’ll be working with our competition to destroy the greater threat to business.”

The underground was not the only business he meant. Bronzemane spoke of the business of survival. They all heard tales from occupied lands, and from refugees, of how the Knights cracked down on anyone different from them, from ideology to species. Their threat to purge the genome struck home to all non-sapiens. It was even worse for the gobli, whom The Party did not even consider sentient. The dwarves knew that when the war came home, they would be fighting for livelihood and their lives.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us, don’t we,” Ghulam stated the obvious.

“We do, and it’s time to get to work. I call this meeting adjourned,” Bronzemane banged the gavel once again. “And one more thing; welcome back Andreas; you’re vacation is over.”