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The ice wars of dominia, p.15
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       The Ice Wars of Dominia, p.15

           Hylton Smith
 
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  Altocotl suddenly found pride in his son’s distractions and was surprised at his response to Meridia.

  “I think it would be wise for the Machu and Aurorans to detail a constitutional pact before approaching the Tor-Azen, and then Korellia. This would possibly encourage Khaled to express interest in such economic trade, especially as they can offer medical science, homeopathic and synthetic prescriptions, and patient treatment. This would eventually become redundant as we progress.”

  They agreed, and Meridia kept her proposed agenda with Karim to herself for the present.

  Chapter 17

 

  She sought out Ragna and asked Ventaninho to give them some privacy.

  “I just wanted to apologise for my outburst when we last met. The nation has suffered so badly, including my family. You are not alone in being on the receiving end of my frustration. I have tried to repair the rifts I have caused and I would be grateful if we could begin a new page of cooperation?”

  Ragna had seen just about every facet of human nature and it was therefore not unusual for such a request. She was right, they had been to hell and back recently and he agreed to return as soon as he was finished his collaboration with Ventaninho. Meridia would have liked to ask what it was about, but decided not to alert suspicion. Her tearful expression when they said goodbye was very convincing. She returned to speak with Altocotl.

  “Will you travel to see Khaled? My quarantine still applies as far as Salamand is concerned, so I will ask Ragna to appear in the presence of Sendzai. He will carry a papyrus which outlines our proposal and with my nation’s official seal. I know you felt our pact should be enshrined in our laws before testing the principle out on the Tor-Azen, but if we meet with little enthusiasm, I have an idea which could still allow us to get our technocratic model underway. It is also something which I would need to check with Ragna, as it depends on the extent to which we can harness the ability of the Travellers. We really have no time to waste, and if I remember correctly, you feel that Salamand is killing time for some reason. We can benefit by resolving his dilemma. By hearing of provisional agreement between the Loci, and hence the offer of much more land for his people, plus the waiver of our objection to the border closures, his reputation is restored, even though it is by luck rather than wisdom.”

  *

  Altocotl was getting more enthusiastic about the plan and decided to wait a little longer before declaring that his notion of the pact was not only between nations, but on a personal level. He was infatuated with this woman. Lennart was more than happy to stay with Itzan.

  *

  Ragna duly appeared after Altocotl’s departure. He didn’t even get the chance to say how pleased he was that they had reconciled their differences. His residual non-sentient energy dissipated into the atmosphere of Altocotl’s tent and beyond toward the wintry star-laden sky, from which his species had evolved billions of years ago. Karim was asked to shift to Ragna to avoid awkward questions if they were seen together. Meridia felt relieved that it was over, but that did not last. Karim had deliberately left it until now to admit that he could not pose as Ragna to Ventaninho.

  “Our normal recognition protocols would give me away. I have thought about this, and you could no doubt give Altocotl a feasible explanation of Ragna’s misfortune, but Ventaninho could never meet me. It is also for the best if Karim is thought to have been consumed by solar flares, as he is universally hated. Everyone would be happy to construe his absence as demise. However, if I cannot appear as either Ragna or Karim I cannot be part of your plan. The most sensible and safe solution is to liquidate Ventaninho, and then I simply assist you as Ragna – nobody else must know.”

  Meridia realised she had been hoodwinked, but there was too much at stake to allow Ventaninho an opportunity to expose the bigger picture. Karim said he had sufficient remaining power to destabilise his fellow Traveller before requiring another supercharge. Meridia reluctantly agreed to visit Ventaninho, demanding to know why Ragna had failed to keep his promise to re-join the Auroran people. It was brutal, Karim struck his target from behind, but a much larger energy discharge was required than for Ragna, and the victim didn’t simply disappear in a puff of smoke. Meridia was the first human to see two Traveller matrices in a prolonged conflict. Eventually Ventaninho’s gave way to nothingness and Karim stated that his need to regenerate was critical, and then he also disappeared. Meridia was exhausted by the sheer apprehension that it was all going wrong. She felt the need to sleep but knew she would lie awake all night thinking about how she would be able to deal with Karim in future if he was seriously injured, especially as she depended on him for contact with Sendzai.

  *

  Altocotl’s mission to Khaled confirmed Meridia’s assertion that the Dominians had suffered significant mortality from the plague. Khaled’s response to the accusation of the food being the source of the epidemic was impressive in its simplicity.

  “Bring me what you have left and I will instruct my people to join me in consuming it. No one has come to challenge me face-to-face as you have now, otherwise you would have already accepted this means of proving our innocence, and many more lives may have been saved by availing of our medicines. Testimony to this is the very high infection rate we suffered, but we had nowhere near the fatalities of the Aurorans. This was because we had much higher numbers of the infected individuals actually recovering. We were about to let all nations know of the successful combination of medicines which resisted the disease, when the accusations filtered in and communication ceased. My real regret at that time was that we could have saved many more of our people and yours if we had hit on the effective combination earlier in the quarantine period.”

  This was quite a credible explanation and again Meridia was proven correct about Dominia’s medical resource being a desirable trading option. The fact that they already had a treatment added weight to getting the pact being documented quickly. Altocotl asked Khaled to do him the honour of a visit to meet with Meridia, leaving the impression that it could be the way back to peace talks, if that was still his objective. Khaled accepted.

  *

  Ragna and Ventaninho had been secretly working on a method to nullify Karim’s potency. They had theorised that their ability to shift shapes smoothly was dependent on precise phase separation of the consecutive images, and that it could be worth tinkering with the mechanism. They realised there was a risk of irreversibility, so they decided that only one of them would act as guinea pig, and that was Ventaninho. After many unsuccessful attempts, they made a partial breakthrough. They managed to trigger a locking sequence or ‘freeze frame’ on the first image and a subsequent automatic and instant reversion to normal form. The hope was that if they were attacked by Karim, the frozen image would provide sufficient distraction in terms of time for them to escape. There was no perfectly safe way of testing the idea but Karim’s plan had seen to it that they would have a real test of its validity. Unfortunately Ragna was the first target, and perished without resistance. Ventaninho sadly proved the feasibility but was extremely disturbed by the loss of his last remaining friend. His disappearance to the top of the ice wall gave him the time to plot his next actions. The energy discharged by Karim to vaporise the frozen image all but consumed Karim’s reserves and Ventaninho knew he would have to head to his supercharge location.

  The vigil would therefore not be very long. Ventaninho was able to detect from this high vantage point the origin and trajectory of Karim’s ion disturbance trail. As this had a short decay time he had to act immediately, and followed it at the maximum safe distance. He didn’t have to go the full journey before he realised the benefit Karim had been afforded by Mercury. He halted briefly in the turbulent gas clouds of Venus while he rehearsed the sequence once more.

  When he appeared alongside Karim he quietly said, “Wait, do nothing. You must appreciate that if you have already destroyed me, you cannot inflict further harm upon me. Alternatively, if you have not destr
oyed me, you will know that I have currently more energy than you, and I can easily inflict upon you the mysterious loss of sentience that has intrigued us recently. You therefore need to listen carefully. I have the common view of Kiozo, Rubina, Ragna and myself to pass on to you. We feel that you alone have ruined our experience of finite existence in the human quest for survival. Now that you are alone you will probably realise that this means there is something beyond your knowledge. Yes, you did destroy me as you did the others. We will be waiting for you – and you cannot escape.”

  Ventaninho had thought very hard about this, and although he had just lied to Karim - he had not in fact been destroyed - he felt existence without his friends was futile and therefore not desired. His last act was to add to the bewilderment of Karim, as he turned and undertook the iconic Icarus journey of flying directly into the Sun. Karim was quite shaken by this disclosure and needed time to contemplate the future after he had regenerated.

  *

  Having returned to the Earth’s surface he was somewhat subdued. Part of his fascination with the game had been in outwitting his contemporaries. This was gone, but he decided to resume his manipulative role with the humans, while he pondered the reception he would face by his fellow Travellers on his expiration. The first port of call was Sendzai, posing as Ragna, who to the Tor-Azen leader knew was the friend of Kiozo and Meridia. When he had espoused the strategy of the other Loci leaders, Sendzai asked many questions which Karim acknowledged as pertinent to the reshaping of the territory, plus the consequent shift of economic and military power.

  “That is why we invite you to discuss the detailed plan with Altocotl and Meridia. You should also know that I have just been briefed that Khaled has shown interest in the concept. He has apparently satisfied those I represent that he is innocent of causing the plague, and furthermore claims to have a successful treatment for it, which he would share if it returns. Can I ask if you are minded to travel to Machu territory, as Meridia has now been declared as free of contagion?”

  Sendzai could visualise this proposed alignment becoming very strong with Khaled’s support. He also saw that it might initially seem attractive to Korellia in terms of land gain, but over time they could become economically frustrated. This had implications for The Tor-Azen, as they would effectively then be isolated to the East. This was one scenario which he felt could justify a departure from their normal rejection of formal alliances. He agreed to talks - but not more at this stage. When Karim reported this back to Meridia she said that it was necessary to brief Altocotl.

  “I want all interested parties to meet as soon as possible, but we first need to clear the way with Korellia, and I am still not permitted to cross into their lands, so we must once again ask the Machu leader to act for us. It is useful anyway because he is independent verification of my absence of infection risk. At this stage he must not declare the involvement of Khaled, or that the fact that he has a treatment for the plague.”

  Chapter 18

 

  Salamand received Altocotl, and when he heard the suggested realignment of territory he knew he had to call for the other leaders to attend. Although Berbus had officially stepped aside so that Salamand alone could speak for West Korellia, he was invited. He declined, and this began to alarm Salamand. He sensed he had dodged an accurate arrow when he alone rejected Meridia’s plea for help, and emphasised the collective Korellian resolve for closed borders. Thule and Quervos arrived and were briefed. The proposal didn’t strike Thule as one which would interest the Tor-Azen, but when he heard that Sendzai himself had agreed to talks, he realised it had to be taken seriously. This had the effect of shifting the balance of power within the Korellian triumvirate. Without Berbus or Negrosa, the military bias was eroded, and Quervos was already known to be in favour of resuming peace talks. The relationship between Thule and Sendzai became pivotal in the outcome of the discussion. All three Korellian tribes were nervous about a corridor in their land which connected the Loci nations. They accepted the principle of trading nuts, berries and fruit for fish. They liked the net gain in land, and appreciated the benefit of reducing their borders with other nations from the current four to the proposed three. Altocotl left them for a time so they could finesse their views. Salamand was most uneasy, as the initial concession of land to the Tor-Azen and Machu corridor would have to come from West Korellia, and then the entire resultant Korellian migratory drift would push east into the larger vacated space. If the tribes simply moved proportionately to the new domain, East Korellia would no longer border with any of the Loci, they would be buffered by the other two, and lose lucrative contracts. Furthermore, it would also leave the inter-Loci corridor solely in the new territories of West and North Korellia. This proved to be a sticking point, until Quervos accepted that all Korellians should forget the corridor and yet maintain their Dominian border. He introduced a modification to Meridia’s plan.

  “In the interests of more cohesion for Korellia I would ask you to consider an alternative. If we can agree to re-settle all of the new Korellian land with a mix of all tribes it would give us a more acceptable counter-proposal. There are few Aurorans, and if they moved with the Tor-Azen into part of West Korellia there would be no need for a corridor there at all. All Loci would be together and we drive the argument for all vacated Loci land being seceded to us. If we are serious about re-uniting Korellia, they must support us otherwise we should be suspicious of their motives.”

  Salamand in particular was relieved to hear this, as he felt he would need persuasive arguments for any concessions to be shared unevenly. Thule felt it was fair in principle, but also saw the implication that improved prosperity would ultimately bring focus to the obvious – one nation required only one leader. He was not sure that Salamand the Wise had managed to grasp that he now had serious competition for that honour. When Altocotl was asked to convey the modified concept back to Meridia and Sendzai, he laughed.

  “You have conveniently forgotten that our plan required a corridor running east of the current Tor-Azen territory. This is non-negotiable.”

  Thule asked why this was so important, knowing the answer. He wanted the others to hear it from Altocotl. The mineral import route spiked the interest of Quervos.

  “If this is so critical why can’t we simply allow access with an appropriate tariff?”

  Altocotl asked if this was their final position.

  “I very much doubt this will satisfy Sendzai. He is being asked to uproot his people completely, take it on trust that he will have a peaceful neighbour in Dominia, which he currently does not have to worry about, and your trust is so weak that he must pay you to retain his mineral supply. The Tor-Azen are absolutely pivotal in this concept. If they do not move, the whole idea is redundant, and they are perfectly capable in a military sense, of taking care of their own interests. In fact they will get comparatively stronger as time passes.”

  Thule now had his platform and confirmed that the technical capability of the Tor-Azen could wipe out all Korellian resistance with impunity.

  “I have seen Sendzai’s development programme, and as East Korellia is the only nation which borders with them we are the most vulnerable. I will go as far as suggesting to my people that if hostilities came about, we would be well-advised to renew our alliance request with Sendzai, rather than pursue this ideology of a unified Korellia. At present, that is all that it amounts to. We have to earn trust - all of us - and that applies to the three Korellian groups. Perhaps it would help if we made a gesture similar to that of Altocotl, when he allowed access through his land to the free resource of his fish farms. Only West Korellia enjoyed this benefit, so you Salamand should be the first to accept the Loci corridor, in a reciprocal act of trust. I would then be happy to recommend to my people that we should comply with the eastern corridor. This would give a more concrete basis for Quervos’ alternative redistribution of land – it could meet everyone’s needs.”

  Salamand saw that Quervos agree
d, and realised that he had been manoeuvred into exactly the position he wanted to avoid. Thule gifted him a chance to restore his recent decline in statesmanship.

  “Instead of imposing a tariff for passage through the corridor, why don’t you suggest to your nation, as I intend to, that we can negotiate a special trade for some of these minerals?” He nodded reluctantly and Altocotl departed.

 

  When Karim learned of Itzan’s work he suggested he may be able to assist, and it also fitted with the discussion between Meridia and the returning Altocotl. Karim, who was still thought to be Ragna by all but Meridia, lauded the alternate plan of Quervos.

  “Even if the corridor changes to ‘escorted passage’ and is only available for a finite time, it makes sense. I have been considering another means of access to the mineral fields for some time, and this proposal would justify such expenditure of energy.” The others asked him to continue. “Well, as the ice is now slowly receding, I can produce major cracks at certain points. If they are carefully placed they will join to make a channel in whatever direction we desire. The northern ice wall could be sculptured to bypass Korellia and head directly to the mineral quarries. The application of more gentle electrical discharge will produce melt water in sufficient quantities to allow travel by simple wooden barges. Once we have this we are not entirely dependent on the whims of Korellia.”

 
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