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The ice wars of dominia, p.6
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       The Ice Wars of Dominia, p.6

           Hylton Smith
 
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  *

  Grenthe referred to their parting remark from the previous visit.

  “We would like to hear about the significance of your need to return to your natural form. There is also a concern that you may have not told us everything you know about your fellow Travellers. Would you care to elaborate?”

  Rubina was happy to describe the need for all travellers to take time out from maintaining human form.

  “Our existence requires certain energy balance to be sustained. Although five of us elected to remain we did so in the knowledge that we would ultimately die. However our individual longevity will be dramatically affected by how much time out we can engineer. We normally harvest filtered solar energy, as the risk of flares can seriously damage our matrix, which confers sentience. At this distance from Earth orbit to the Sun, the replenishment of energy is much lower than that expended to maintain polymorphic shapes. As this deficit increases we may have to consider going closer to the Sun. One way or another we will eventually expire without a filter, and we cannot replicate such complex technology here. We have observed that Kiozo, the Traveller assisting the Tor-Azen, has been so busy designing advanced weapons that he has had no time in orbit. This will significantly shorten his life, as there is an energy level below which the matrix destabilisation accelerates.”

  Grenthe interrupted, “If I have understood correctly, you are saying that the assistance of the individual Travellers may cease at different times.”

  Rubina nodded. “That is highly likely, and we must also factor in the pivot point of matrix destabilisation threshold. If the exact point is predicted and no further human form is engaged, the individual may extend life by either operating solely from orbit, or seek reversal from prolonged periods closer to the Sun, with its attendant risk. If however, the point is predicted and there is failure to act in time, then the process becomes irreversible and the end will come at an accelerating rate. This would leave the individual with the dilemma of residing mostly in orbit, with infrequent, short surface visits, or to make concentrated surface visits for critical discussion with the appropriate reduction in lifespan.”

  Meridia pounced on this rather stark explanation.

  “It would therefore be a distinct advantage to have two Travellers who could alternate on the surface and thus provide continuity.”

  Both Ragna and Rubina concurred. Meridia went on to ask if there was any plan for the two of them to persuade other Travellers to defect to the cause of the Aurorans. Rubina thought such a proposal was unlikely to find favour with them right now, but if for instance, talks with the Western alliance could be arranged, it could lead to agreement between the various Korellian tribes involved, and the two Loci nations.

  “If such an improbable accord has already been founded with the Machu, Salamand and Berbus, we should encourage the trend. Looking at it from another perspective, if Salamand manages to inspire North Korellians to join the coalition, Aurorans could see themselves isolated in a diplomatic sense. It is extremely urgent, and we can if you wish, act as intermediaries with Ventaninho, the Traveller assisting the Machu.”

  Grenthe asked for a moment with Meridia and Grun. They all agreed that events were overtaking their own conservative plans. The possibility of being squeezed back to the ice wall was not an option. It was agreed. Ragna and Rubina outlined how they would have to contact Ventaninho, and pending him seeing the mutual benefit, they would expect him to ask for proof of the Aurorans’ intentions to rally to the objective of pushing back Dominia.

  Chapter 7

 

  Kiozo had not even considered what Sendzai would do once the cyanide projectiles were ready; he just thought about how to beat the deadline for making them. Mitsuno had been ordered to take his heavily armed troops into East Korellia and return with more than six captains of the scattered tribes, as prisoners. The terrain chosen was the most open they knew of, as Sendzai wanted the demonstration to be observed by as many local people as possible. Mitsuno was also under strict orders to ensure no women or children were injured. The raid was swift yet risky without the cover Mitsuno would have chosen himself. In giving his warriors permission to use the pistols as they saw fit, he underestimated the combined effectiveness of Kiozo’s inventiveness. The chariots struck fear into the defenders of the first encampment and the relative neutralisation of their archers caused many to visualise certain death. When this was confirmed by barrage after barrage of coordinated pistol fire, the senior warriors couldn’t prevent the ranks from melting away. The falling of comrades who hadn’t even got close to the enemy, injected mass hysteria amongst those supposed to follow up the charge. The chariots seemed impregnable and at the same time death was being dispensed from invisible weapons. The resistance became a shambles and Mitsuno had his captives without sustaining a single loss.

  *

  Ragna and Rubina split up to save time. Ragna went in search of Salamand and found him a little despondent at the caution of the remainder of the North Korellians. It was partly because they didn’t believe Lupus had joined forces with Dominia. Ragna decided to go with the magic appearing act. It startled Salamand and those that he was trying to convince. He disappeared again and made his second entrance as an extinct avian – a golden eagle. When he morphed back to ‘Ragna the human’ he had their attention.

  “Fear not, I bear good news. First, I am actually the celebrated wraith which is claimed to haunt these lands. As you can see, I am no such creature. I can be whatever I desire to be. If you do not believe me perhaps a volunteer can skewer me on a very sharp spear or lance. I will not retaliate and the volunteer will not be successful, as I merely wish to set you all at ease.”

  There was no movement and certainly no volunteer.

  Salamand responded, “You have told us what you are not; perhaps you could tell us what you claim to be?”

  Ragna was happy to do so, and impressed them with his knowledge, as he articulated the role of the shape-shifters in the historical cataclysms – and, he did it in the North Korellian dialect.

  “Before I continue, you must really test my abilities, because time is running out for you to halt the Dominian aggression. I assume that is what Salamand is trying to tell you.”

  It was Salamand who challenged this, “How do you know who I am and what my purpose is with these people?”

  Ragna wasted no time in filling their heads with military intelligence, the various agendas, and the probable outcome of conflict, if nothing changed.

  “I know much more than we have time to debate at this moment. I can enlighten you with all the data you need during the conflict. My purpose here is the same as that of Salamand, except that I bear the pledge of support from the Aurorans, whereas he represents the Machu. Is this not correct Salamand?”

  They were all staggered, none more so than Salamand himself. Ragna continued.

  “The Aurorans are already on their way to speak to and offer support to Altocotl and Berbus. You see, I have been keeping an eye on all developments. Without the combined efforts of the North and West Korellians, the Machu, and Aurorans, Dominia will be extremely difficult to turn back. I must make you aware of two other important situations. First, the Dominians also have one of my kin assisting them, his name is Karim, and he will be able to give T’slane all the troop movements in the same way I can do for you. If you do not have this information you will stand little chance of survival. Secondly, the leader of North Korellia, Lupus is not a willing participant to this apparent alliance with T’slane – he was forced into compliance by being threatened with Dominia attacking the northern lands before those of your neighbours in the west. I am sure Salamand has already mentioned this, but the initial defeat of West Korellia would merely delay the assault on the north. Ask all you need to when the Dominians have been halted completely. Their present defensive position is a ploy; they have mobilised all reserves to descend on to the battlefield at very short notice. Diplomacy is not an option until the first re
al encounter is concluded. I urge you to follow Salamand, as I have to return to the conflict zone.”

  Ragna disappeared with the same panache, leaving them to act or accept the consequences.

  Salamand produced the clinching evidence of the wounded North Korellian soldier. The barely conscious recruit confirmed Ragna’s assertion that Lupus was acting under duress.

  “He had however secretly instructed Negrosa, to make the troops ready to desert the Dominian oppressors; the signal to do so would have been the arranged accidental death of T’slane. This was never achieved, because Karim reported that Machu reinforcements were arriving rapidly to bolster the counter-attack.”

  Salamand proclaimed it was now or never. The reaction was inspirational; never before had the two mini-nations of Korellia stood together for the same cause.

  *

  Rubina created the same surprise by her precision in appearing in the space between Altocotl and Berbus. The latter demonstrated phenomenal awareness as he tightened a garrotte around her neck, before she had time to introduce herself. His bewilderment at her immunity was the catalyst for Machu warriors to protect their leader. Rubina thwarted their tactics by seizing Altocotl’s ornate dagger, which he had already drawn from its sheath, and swallowing it. Having retrieved and inspected it during the freeze frame this created, she then returned it to the wide-eyed leader, and a sense of calm descended on some of the onlookers, but not Berbus. He swung a huge granite club at her. When it passed through her head, she appealed for cessation of such mindless aggression.

  “I shall return – you have one last chance to hear what I have to say.”

  She reverted to her normal form, and in doing so produced a light and sound intensity which caused disorientation, and severe aural pain to all within earshot. The lesson was brief as she reappeared as the double of Berbus, quickly shifting to Altocotl and finally back to Rubina. At last they appeared to be receptive to listening rather than hacking and slashing.

  “I need you to consider what I have to say extremely carefully. The alliance you have formed is not yet strong enough to defeat T’slane. As I speak Salamand is bringing North Korellians to your flank. This can also be strengthened by Auroran forces, which are loyal to Grenthe, and willing to join you in your quest. I can tell you that if you pursue T’slane into the shadows you will fall into his trap. He was surprised by the presence of Machu, and the speed of your response, but his tactics remain unaltered. If you wait until Salamand arrives and the envoy of Grenthe follows, you will be able to assess the situation in much more depth, especially as you need to know T’slane has an advisor with the same capabilities as I do. We can talk more of that later. I must again impress upon you that to attack the apparently helpless retreating Dominian cowards, as much as it beckons, is a fatally flawed plan. You will not get another chance unless you wait to hear from Salamand.”

  Rubina disappeared and joined Ragna. Together they insisted that Karim should meet them for the briefest discussion. Having already been surprised at the Machu-West Korellian alignment, he surprisingly agreed, but didn’t know Ventaninho would also be there.

  *

  The four travellers stood on the ice wall to the north. It was so high that their vantage point was clearly visible from the western battlefield. When they shifted from humanoid shape the intensity of the light from the four of them even caught the eye of Kiozo. At this distance it looked like a cosmic event to the Tor-Azen, but Kiozo recognised the signature of the Travellers. He initially gave only brief thought to his absence from a gathering in which all of the others seemed to be there. He chastised himself, and vowed to take some time out from his prodigious technology efforts. The view from the top of the ice wall instilled a real sense of perspective, yet one of sadness. This last bastion of life-supporting potential for what was left of the human race was heaving with latent self-destruction. This was why Rubina had chosen the location, rather than ascending to the detail-obscuring vista of orbit. She let the scene wash over Karim and Ventaninho before explaining why she had insisted it was crucial for them to meet; it had the desired effect judging by the muted state of the two guests. Karim had not even protested about Ventaninho’s presence.

  “We wanted to reflect on whether we should reinstate some kind of regulation of our activities before the landscape we gaze upon becomes the final blaze of human existence. Down there, this criticality is not easy to see. It is all about military strategy and its potential to marginalise the fears of each individual nation. We have not yet mentioned to these remaining torchbearers of the species, that the ice will slowly recede. This may be important because this fear is actually driven by the diminishing habitable zone and increasing population. We wanted to re-examine our own motives while there is still time.”

  Karim snapped out of the semi-trance, into which the view and Rubina’s commentary had led him.

  “You chose this time to maximise the effect this potential coalition of the Loci and barbarians might have on me, and therefore on the Dominians. Your speech was indeed very challenging Rubina, but if you remember, it was you who first broke the rules. We have all sentenced ourselves to lives of a finite length, so we have now something in common with the humans, who you now seem to respect so much more than you did when abandoning the Korellian nation. If you had stayed with them you would have found out as you have now, that there are exceptions. Salamand is nothing like Kyklos. I also have acquired an admiration of the precarious lives all humans simply accept. They have faced extinction by natural causes and are understandably not afraid to meet the same fate from within their species. I enjoy the unpredictability of it all and I don’t want to give it up for the pretentious morality you are preaching. I am surprised the rest of you do not admit to the same feelings. I am going to return now unless you wish to discuss tactics.”

  Ragna turned to Rubina. “I did try to tell you this would be his reaction. To him this is nothing more than a game in which he indulges, prior to his own expiration. The fate of the humans, or even the entire planet for that matter, means nothing to him.”

  Karim laughed, also an acquired human trait.

  “You are deluding yourselves, don’t you see that there is no purpose to this species, planet, solar system or even the Cosmos. It is just behaviour in adapting to equations governed by the laws of physics. Our own species dabbling in planetary horticulture was, and always will be, a pointless indulgence. At least the humans have a foreseeable end to such life-consuming hobbies. These wars are much more enjoyable. I can see you have not taken me seriously. I will therefore work on the premise that from now there are no rules of any kind to be observed. Oh, one final word of advice, you should make absolutely certain that this alliance you claim to have is not a weakness, since you obviously consider it as an advantage. I am sure you will see what I mean when the foe is engaged.”

  Ventaninho had remained silent while Karim was present.

  “Part of what he says makes sense to me. I do not see this as a game, but with our own existence ebbing away we have limited time to achieve something worthwhile for each of our nations, and indirectly for ourselves. In human terms it could be called a legacy. It is only a question of how seriously we all take it. Karim takes it extremely seriously, but only as a game of finality. Our species has very little experience of finality – we have all but engineered it out of polymorphic existence. I see it as a challenge to help the Machu, the people who trust me. It is not so different to what Karim meant. What does concern me is his intention to countenance no kind of behavioural regulation. At least we know how he will operate. I propose we get on with more pressing matters. The news that you represent the Aurorans is a surprise, but if you have achieved nothing else so far, you have crucially facilitated bringing them together with the Machu. Left to themselves, and the Korellian tribes sandwiched between them, it would probably have come too late, if at all. Karim did not seem to be overly concerned about this, that is troublesome don’t you think?”
r />   Ragna and Rubina nodded in agreement, and Rubina suggested that they return to their respective nations.

  “Can we agree to the three of us meeting here regularly, if the opportunity to discuss sensitive matters is not afforded to us during the campaign?”

  Ventaninho said that was acceptable, and further proposed that they should advise official recognition of this coalition – with the Korellians as equal participants in every respect.

  “I suggest we take all the time necessary to promote absolute solidarity before offensive military action is even contemplated. We know that T’slane withdrew his forces before he was aware of defection of any North Korellians to Salamand, or that the Aurorans were backing them up. Linking this to Karim’s confidence, I do not believe this retreat was to simply defend from more secure territory.”

  Accord was reached. There had been no mention of Kiozo, who had made a breakthrough; the prototype cyanide ammunition was ready to test.

  Chapter 8

  Sendzai did not want to wait for experiments to confirm Kiozo’s confidence. He split the seven East Korellian captains into three groups. Three were taken downwind, and to the limit of the cannons’ range. There, they were tied to vertical stakes which faced the weapons. He explained to the others, now divided into two pairs, that they had a choice.

  “We will discharge our new ammunition at your friends in the distance. If we miss them or they are merely injured, two of you may go to rescue them – we will not interfere. If they are killed, then those who volunteered to rescue them will take their place at the stake, and we begin the tests again. You have a minute to decide which of you believe we may need more than one shot to cause death.”

 
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