The Cube - Chapter 9 - Continued
Orly invited the family to his side of the canvas. On principle he did not share his work with subjects until complete because he did not want their reactions to taint his artistic vision. Mutt was quite impressed at his visage, Ivy even more so, serene and reflective, handsome and virile, at most one-eighth goofy. Ivy herself was the picture of fecundity, a word Mutt now understood, enticing the viewer with her locks and engaging eyes, her delicate nose and dimples framing a subdued smile, her softness and vulnerability, her power to bring forth life, leaning into her husband, their spines forming a triangle with the floor encapsulating their beaming daughter, the only member of the family whose face showed no restraint. Ivy saw in her daughter the magical product of her marriage and felt an erotic thrill at the sex of which she was proof. This is what the man did to me, she thought, and she loved him for it. Mutt decided he was not so bad looking but hardly a match for his wife. His one objection was the ridiculous hummingbirds floating above their scalps. Was this truly how they dressed in olden times? The couple never thought to ask Orly what he would do with the portrait. As it turned out he had already sold it to the tram operator. Ivy found this creepy. Why would that old man want to hang a portrait of her family in his cottage? Still, she did not want to show ingratitude to the painter. He had to earn a living and surely her family could not afford such an elaborate production. Orly sensed their disappointment and offered a consolation prize. In a back room hung a large painting of various couples arrayed in oversized perspective emerging from the angled plane with the lands of Arland and Skava falling away to either side, the canteen and hammer and rotating cube looming in the background. Ivy recognized Glon and Glon, the father and the sloplady, Esma and Muwild, Lurek and Nelada, Bluitt and Edsall, and many others. Beneath the portrait a caption read “The New Normal.” Ivy immediately got the pun. Mutt oscillated back and forth between the two meanings of the word, understanding them both but unable to grasp that the painter intended a double entendre.
“Shall I add you to the portrait?”
“That would be lovely,” Ivy replied.
Orly was going to paint over a couple who repented and returned to Arland, a process requiring public recantation of deviation and, usually, a return to hidden ways. Mutt recalled Ivy’s acceptance of love in all its forms on the day of their fake wedding and admired her graciousness. He would never rid himself entirely of the notion that something was wrong with Glon squared – when he thought of the physical act inherent in their union he recoiled – yet he was learning to accept their love. He was proud to stand with his wife in the New Normal and repressed the condemnation so deeply ingrained in his psyche. Ivy requested that Orly add Oolan to the painting as the only unattached person. He died suffering a lover’s rejection and should be celebrated, and redeemed, along with those whose love endured. No one had a picture of Oolan so soon he had taken his life after arriving in the Notches, but Orly painted an imagined version to Ivy’s side reaching down to hold Hope’s hand. The New Normal was the painter’s gift to the Notches and would be circulated among the homes of all the depicted. He proposed that the forester’s hut display it first and Ivy gladly accepted. Mutt was tired of Looda steamboats, even Ivy was, and they would welcome a new sight on their walls.
The Sphere had run its creative course and was limping along with tawdry romance and gratuitous violence awaiting Ivy’s promised revelations after the Fifteenth of Tarpin. The ice mountains on the dark side had long melted from the relentless exhaust of the boilers, raising the level of the great ocean until all that remained of dry land was the bright zone and ring forest, forcing the great nations into close quarters and increasingly bloody conflict fueled by the narcotic vapors of nabana peels. The gigantic windmills were catching the cosmic wind, generating power for weapons production so that people could continue killing each other, and the Sphere was slowly rotating from the torque, picking up speed with each revolution. Spinning introduced a new concept to the story, the periodic division of night and day. People could now stay in one place and experience half a day in sunlight and half a day in darkness, a reality unlike any encountered on the Cube. Terrible things would happen at night with irregular military forces marauding the hamlets for rape and plunder. Common people had no source of illumination other than firelight, electricity being diverted strictly to military use, and would gather at night in large defensive circles with men facing outward armed with farm implements, their firearms also having been confiscated, and women and children huddled inside. The marauders loved these formations, calling them a candy treat with hard shell and creamy center, for they had the effect of gathering their favorite human targets, women and girls, in one place. The crude defenses were easy to penetrate and the marauders took sadistic pleasure butchering the males, who were honor bound to fight to the death, on their way to the females. The defensive circles also left homesteads unoccupied and free for plunder and torching. The violent imagery of the raids came from Ivy, and Mutt was impressed – and disturbed – by her ability to conceptualize evil. Everyone understood that the spinning of the Sphere would destroy the planet. Indeed, they felt themselves growing lighter with each revolution as velocity increased, and it was a only a matter of time before centripetal forces would tear the planet apart. The authors never bothered to calculate the angular velocity required to overcome gravity but just assumed the cosmic wind could achieve it. Despite the imminent predictable catastrophe, neither nation would take action first and on principle they refused to negotiate. The plan of each country was to achieve victory first and save the planet later, and this required more windmills in the short term, not fewer.
Huston and Posy produced five children with the undertaker and telegraph operator who themselves were having an affair, making it difficult to match children with specific fathers. Even the mothers got confused over which children they delivered. As far as the couple could tell, their first child, the love child, remained the only product of their frequent unions. Posy retained her deep conviction that bringing a child into such a violent world was deeply immoral and, admirably, had succumbed to wanton lust only four times during fertility, each producing a baby and eventually qualifying her as a nursery under the city’s byzantine childcare ordinance. Mutt wondered if Posy with her many lovers was acting out Ivy’s sexual fantasies but decided this was not possible. Ivy regretted killing off Posy’s father, the mayor, so early in the story because she never found an adequate villain to replace him. He caught Huston in the act with his daughter and threatened to unleash an electric thaban on them, one of the many exotic creatures on the planet, leaving Huston with no choice but to slice off the mayor’s head with invisible razor wire located conveniently near his neck. A distraught Posy, who still harbored hopes her father was not a merciless tyrant despite his fondness for mowing down schoolchildren with spike harrows, ran crying down the stairwell chasing her father’s tumbling head before giving up and returning to grieve his headless corpse. Huston was aroused by the bloodletting of his nemesis and sought to complete the act so rudely interrupted, a prospect Posy found compatible with her continued grieving from a certain position.
Mutt developed a side story in which Posy authored a romance novel about life on a cubic planet, allowing him to envision his own planet through the eyes of a Sphere dweller with tawdriness exceeding that of the Sphere. He even considered having Posy write a novel about a woman on a cube writing a novel set on a sphere but decided only a warped author would construct something so convoluted. The numerous affairs of Huston and Posy created a problem for Ivy’s resolution of the story. How could she regain reader’s interest in their relationship with so much intrigue on the side? The undertaker and telegraph operator would have to die, most logically one drowning and the other sucked into a windmill in keeping with important themes of the story. Then the couple could rediscover true love, a mystical veil descending over the animal passion that had never subsided so they could launch into the void hand in hand at the planet’s disintegration. In the midst of all this she needed to reveal Posy’s big secret about the fate of the universe which she had been teasing for the last hundred or so installments. Remarkably, The Cause continued to run the story despite, or perhaps because of, its descent into sex and gore, and it maintained a loyal following. Muglair even referenced it in further speeches, and editorials in The Cause lauded its environmental themes while decrying its morals.
Mutt stopped to read various bulletins he had been ignoring in the canteen. Even though he received the notices from the great powers, copied them, and handed them to the runner, he had only skimmed their content. Now he read carefully the latest pronouncements from Muglair. In the wake of Arland’s humiliation of Skava at Bivens Mill, he had dedicated his nation to pursuit of alternative energy, working within the constraints dictated by Arland and building his glorious legacy, the new Hutman capital of Shamba. Indeed the nation’s entire energies were dedicated to construction of this magnificent new city. The latest notice from Skava detailed progress for the Cathedral of the Resolution, a holy sanctuary reserved for the Hutman alone, free of the foul reek of Inta and named for the resolution of religious dialectics in favor of the Hutman, its tallest spire towering high above the Skavian plain exactly one foot taller than the Holy Sarcophagi in Rixjrig with structural reinforcement to permit augmentation should Arland prove so vain as to heighten its own spires. The Circularium, an arena for mock weaponized combat, the Dioramas of Independence, a museum telling the story of Hutman triumph over Inta repression, the Plaza of the Martyrs, featuring gigantic columns representing the murdered revolutionaries, Isogon Row, the new headquarters for the military branches, the Colonnade of the Cause, the replacement of the People’s Hall in Leri Deri, and most imposing of all the Palace of Progress, the seat of power for the Great Man where he would humbly serve the people, were all rising above the plain ahead of schedule. Muglair boldly declared that Shamba would be ready for habitation in less than three years when the evacuation of Leri Deri would take place. He would raze the ancient capital, salt the earth, and declare it an Inta graveyard. For it was in Leri Deri that the Hutman revolutionaries perished, that generations of Hutman oppression had been orchestrated, and that Arland’s tentacles had slithered in to oppress the trusting Hutman and butcher his children. Leri Deri would henceforth be a dumping ground for the bodies of those who opposed the cause. There the vultures could pick over their carcasses because the noble Hutman would not lift a shovelful of dirt to bury traitors. The Great Man sincerely hoped that none would be so foolish as to defy the current of history but if such a fool existed the salt of Leri Deri would await.
Arland described an entirely different Shamba, an enormous military bunker built to withstand the predictable Arland onslaught when Muglair launched an unprovoked attack over the Edge. Skava was in the midst of a colossal military buildup, its fortifications along the Edge increasing tenfold in three years both outside the restricted zone and, surreptitiously, within the zone in violation of treaty. Vainly the Great Man was amassing his own fleet of ballast ships but he would never match the mighty Armada. He was building concentric perimeter defenses with trenches and tunnels around Leri Deri, still the seat of government, and the earthworks of Shamba, and developing new antiaircraft weaponry to ward off the expected Arland retaliation. Skavian scientists were perfecting misting balls for dispersal of neurotoxins over the Edge. Arland had acquired secret photographs of nerve gas experiments showing a herd of thabans in an open field wiped out in under thirty seconds according to a large clock thoughtfully placed in their midst. Skava increased its forces oriented to Arland’s gravity from two thousand at the time of Bivens Mill to over one hundred thousand now. Ominously, they even had a force of a thousand oriented to the gravity of the Notches. Curiously Skava had almost entirely abandoned Bivens Mill, leaving it to the mercy of Arland in the event of war, an obvious weak point in the war machine for the power grid could easily be disrupted.
Arland summarized Muglair’s increasing belligerence, his declaration that he would not rest until Arland licked his boot and liked it, his threat that Arland would lose ten sons for every child of Skava should they dare violate its sacred soil, his relentless purges of the Inta and rivals within the Party, the proliferation of labor camps for his long list of enemies, the increasing pageantry and militarism of the parades through Leri Deri sometimes stretching dozens of miles across the plains from the People’s Hall to the Amphitheater of Shamba. Arland would not sit idly by while Muglair prepared for war, its notices declared, and it was ratcheting up its military capabilities in accordance with the ancient maxim: what Skava does, do twice. Skava’s larger population was no match for Arland’s industrial base. Indeed the many impoverished mouths to feed were a problem for Skava and a source of contempt among the Arland elite who viewed Skava as a breeding factory for Hutwits, a favorite term of derision. But while disdain for Hutmen was fashionable in Rixjrig, no one was laughing. The highest levels in Arland knew exactly what Muglair was doing, and it was too awful to reveal in propaganda for fear of unsettling the populace. What the leadership did not understand was how quickly Muglair could do it, and how dangerous it would be.
Ivy joined her family by the cube on the main green having just come from a council meeting where she proposed re-brazing the hammer. With the approach of the Fifteenth of Tarpin only a week away, her oscillations between appreciation of her family and black despair had grown starker. She was now in an appreciative mood. Mutt was trying to bounce an acorn off a bench into a birdbath while Hope busily retrieved the invariable misses. Ivy did not want to wait a week to start trying to conceive. Unlike Posy, she had the self-restraint to abstain but she needed to experience natural love with her husband even if the world were ending. She kept coming back to the same concern, Posy’s belief that bringing life into a doomed world was immoral. Perhaps she could adopt Posy’s solution, yielding to animal lust when the mood hit and blaming weakness of the flesh. She could even try prune juice if it eased her conscience. But she had more pressing matters to tend to. Mutt needed to send a letter to Mira urging her family to flee Shivaree immediately. Why? he asked. Because Shivaree was going to be destroyed. They needed to pack evacuation bags themselves. Why? he asked again. Because the Notches was going to be destroyed. He said he thought the end times were only arriving, not concluding. She told him yes, but they would start right here, in the Notches, with a violence he did not wish to contemplate. How sure was she this would happen? Not at all, she said. She still hoped the world was saved but they needed to prepare for the worst. Mutt was not ready to embrace his wife’s apocalyptic vision. He rested his mandolin on his lap and finger picked the same melody he played at the Edge the day they met. She recognized the tune and lapsed into a reverie of that fateful encounter. Hope dumped her acorns into the birdbath and began pirouetting clumsily, her stalk flopping with each twirl, periodically stopping for parental applause before resuming with an elated smile. Eventually she keeled over from dizziness into a four-point stance then walked around in a zigzag enjoying the disorienting sensation. Ivy sat the little girl down on her lap and buried her nose in the stalk as the child squirmed. A bizarre iridescent bird with golden cockade alit on the birdbath, surveyed the family, then flew off toward the church belfry.
Ivy walked about the plane warning friends to prepare evacuation plans. When asked, she said she was discharging her duties as a councilwoman in the face of heightened tensions between the great nations. The Notches was uniquely vulnerable on the frontier. The father knew she was alerting him to a significant historical event, not just weather data, but chose not to prepare. Where could he go? How does a Notch dweller with the wrong gravity flee whatever might be coming? She posted notices on the bulletin boards without authorization, all copies hand drawn, preaching vigilance and preparation in the face of military escalation. The parks chair did not know who posted the bulletins and immediately removed them. In the sleeping hour on the Fourteenth, Mutt made his customary pass and Ivy received him fully. She was not sure if it was her window and did not care. She needed to feel her husband as a woman regardless of the calendar. Posy would have done no less.
On the Fifteenth of Tarpin Mutt awoke refreshed, a warm Skavian breeze blowing through an open window, the New Normal hanging above the curtain rod on the high wall created by the lofted ceiling, the scent of azalea wafting in the air. Ivy had not slept at all. Her black despair had returned and her husband’s sheltering arms were not sufficient to dispel it. She put herself on autopilot and bathed, clothed, and fed their daughter while Mutt left for a canteen run. The world is still here, he thought, beginning to wonder if his wife really was a doomsday cultist. She would probably claim her mistake was the result of a computational error and pick a new random date for the end times. He saw a crowd gathering at the Skavian overlook and his stomach sank. People did not normally assemble there. He walked to the ramp and instinctively got in line, listening to snippets of conversation about “what it is.” Blind shrewn walked by in black sleeves with his cane chanting “the end is here.” Mutt asked questions but no one could give a straight answer. Most likely it was smoke but it could be steam or water. After a half hour Mutt got his turn at the telescope on the main viewing platform. Due east in the far distance a barely perceptible line rose skyward from the Skavian plain. That was all. He stepped aside from the telescope befuddled. What is it? he asked a stranger. Water, he was told. He found Ivy at the ramp entrance in a state of panic. She left Hope with him and raced through the line, ignoring shouts at her cutting, lowering her head and plowing through the crowd with her hands as a wedge. She seized the telescope and stared into Skava for five seconds. Back on Notches soil she grabbed Mutt’s hand insistently.
“We have to go.”
Mutt stopped at a bulletin board and ripped off several emergency notices Volp had posted himself. He lay them on the table in the hut and began reading, first Muglair’s announcement followed by Arland’s response. He could not comprehend the words and asked Ivy to explain.
“Mutt, it’s upwater. Shamba is not a city. It’s a mining operation. Muglair drilled straight through the planet to the Silent Sea. He is draining it for hydroelectric power.”
Mutt was gobsmacked. He had never heard of anything so reckless. While they were sleeping, Muglair had given a speech for dignitaries assembled at the Amphitheater declaring it a banner day in history, a date on which the Hutman would claim what was rightfully his. He would continue to negotiate in good faith with Arland to solve the planet’s problems but now as an equal at the bargaining table. For Skava no longer needed the permission of Arland to tap the mighty ocean. Through the skill and ingenuity of its engineers they had brought the Silent Sea to Shamba. The Great Man turned his back on the crowd and faced the central earthworks, an artificial plateau beneath which miners, engineers, contractors, and grunts had been bustling since Muglair came to power, ostensibly building the foundation for the new Hutman capital but in fact implementing the Project in all its glory. For a decade Muglair dreamt of this moment, choreographing the revelation that would change the world. On cue as he turned his hands palm up in the direction of the new capital the Project went live. A trickle of upwater fell heavenward as the gates opened, drawing precious liquid through sluices and turbines, increasing to a rivulet, a stream, a river, a torrent, a furious gusher. Around the Amphitheater a circle of lights flickered and then flooded the seating with radiance more blinding than the Skavian sun, a demonstration of the electric power this boundless source would produce. Generators were already sending current to Leri Deri and other population centers on the grid, an excess of electricity requiring grounding even as lines from Bivens Mill were cut. Muglair turned to his audience and told them henceforward this would be day one on the calendar, for all prior history had been wiped clean and the Hutman would start over as master of the elements.
What would Arland do? Surely they would send their mighty Armada and surely Muglair would crush it, for he had not been idle since the humiliation at Bivens Mill. What they could throw, he would catch and throw back. He extended to Arland the vine of peace and proposed negotiations for the fair allocation of the planet’s resources on an equal and sustainable basis, with due regard for Skava’s greater development needs and past injustices. Equality was all he ever wanted, and should the people of Arland prove wiser than their Mothers, the planet’s harmonious future could be ensured. So confidant he was in the wisdom of Arland’s people he had left only surface controls for the Flume, his term for the shaft descending to the Sea. If Arland chose to bomb these controls, the default setting for the Flume was free flow, and stopping it would prove a challenge. Arland would be welcome to solve this problem should they be foolish enough to create it.
Arland was blindsided by the eruption of the Flume. They had known for years of Muglair’s intentions. It was indeed a scenario in one of the civil patrol’s contingency books even before Muglair came to power, what to do if the Silent Sea drains through a hole in Skava. But the answer in the earlier plans presumed a natural disaster, a leak through sedimentary faults, and a coordinated response. The new contingency plans for what Muglair had actually done, drilling a reinforced shaft straight through Skava to the bottom of the Sea, were woefully inadequate. Arland was unprepared because they did not believe such rapid construction was possible. They had obtained the Project plans from inside sources, scientists alarmed by its destructive potential, shortly after Bivens Mill when the drilling began in earnest. The plans called for gradual drilling and excavation of the shaft stopping every ten miles for installation of a control station. Each station would have the independent capacity to restrict the flow of water through control louvers. It was two hundred miles to the geometric center of the Cube plus an additional sixty miles to the bottom of the Sea, requiring construction of twenty-five stations in the shaft in addition to the master control in Shamba and the unmanned intake station at the bottom of the Sea. The intake was the only portion constructed from the Parvian side, one hundred and forty miles beneath the surface of the Sea, by dropping enormous bells beneath which silt could be cleared and concrete laid. The intake was among Muglair’s first priorities after the revolution, an enterprise shrouded in total secrecy taking years to complete and ending only with Zranga’s mission to lower the great door from the trawler. The door was intended as a fail-safe control operated by remote signal. If the flow rate in Shamba exceeded a set amount, or if a manual control were invoked, the door would collapse onto the intake drain sealing it off. From the secret plans, Arland had concluded that completion of the Project was five to ten years away. Not wanting to take chances, the great nation chose to assume the Flume could erupt within two years and was preparing an ultimatum to be followed by a massive preventive assault.
Muglair achieved his shortened timeline by the simple expedient of eliminating all control stations. This allowed the Project to become operational before Arland could react, which is how the Great Man justified his decision to the Council. But it also allowed him to booby trap the planet, a purpose he would not share with the Ministers. Muglair believed that Arland was less likely to take aggressive action if destruction of Shamba left the Flume uncontrolled. He also wanted to ensure that if he failed he could take the planet with him. For everyone could see that if the Silent Sea drained long enough the Cube would destabilize and disintegrate. Muglair would force Arland to capitulate, or the world would not survive. For his plan to work he had to disable the great door, which was under the control of the Demographics Institute in Harmour where the intake station was designed. Fortunately he had moles in Zranga’s organization who could carry out sabotage in coordination with the security cell in Interior, all without the Council’s knowledge. Muglair assured the Ministers the door would remain operational and even gave them a duplicate control key. His plan, so he explained, was to tell Arland only surface controls existed in order to discourage attack while secretly retaining the power, shared jointly by himself and the Council, to stop the Flume with the great door should the integrity of the planet be jeopardized. It was all a lie. He had no intention of sharing such power with the Council, and no intention of leaving a back door in place for saving the planet. Muglair was surprised to learn that Zranga personally supervised installation of the great door, and even more surprised to learn the cables held. It was his first inkling that the Minister was working at cross purposes to the cause. He intended to neutralize this threat upon Zranga’s return to Skava but the Minister was one step ahead. He bought time with a display of psychic power appealing to the Great Man’s superstitions. Muglair believed in higher forces and Tobor’s manifestations frightened him. He feared spirit retribution for the crime on which he built his rise to power, the betrayal of the martyrs. But while Zranga was one step ahead, so was Muglair, as if they marched in a circle each ahead of the other. For Muglair had doubly sabotaged the great door. The signal to collapse the door would explode it, sending its remnants into the shaft to emerge through Shamba. The rigging of the planet for destruction was complete, and the Cube would survive or perish with the surface controls alone.
Muglair’s speech at the Amphitheater was announced two weeks in advance. Rixjrig believed Muglair would declare war on Arland. The buildup along the Edge was so massive it could not serve a purely defensive purpose. Marshal Turlin mobilized the Armada and Edge defenses preparing to push back with overwhelming force. When the Flume erupted, the military was ready for a frontier battle but not an expedition to Shamba. Nonetheless the matter of bombing Shamba was submitted to the Mothers for immediate consideration. Roused from the sleeping hour and based on a two-hour presentation from military and intelligence services, the Hall overwhelmingly voted for war. The declaration carried with it the right of the military to take all steps necessary for the prosecution of war, effectively stripping the Hall of power. The circumstances were dire and the seriousness of the threat could not be overstated. Arland could not negotiate with Muglair from a position of weakness. He was not a man who would meet halfway. Shamba must be destroyed and then the nations could talk. The consequences of this decision were enormous and the Mothers did not make it lightly. It was their children and grandchildren, their nephews and nieces, the sons and daughters of their neighbors, who would inherit the world shaped by their vote. Tyranny could not prevail, and Arland could not succumb. If Muglair and the Mothers agreed on one thing, it was a preference for annihilation to subjugation. Some worlds were not worth living in.
Ivy franticly ran about the hut gathering food and fresh clothing for their daughter, who curled up in the bowl chair distraught from her mother’s palpable fear. Mutt saw strange shadows outside the window, orderly shapes moving eastward toward Skava. He ran out of the hut into the gourd garden infected now by Ivy’s panic, and looked upward at a majestic sight he never imagined would impinge upon his eyes. There above the Notches the mighty Arland Armada spanned the sky, hundreds upon hundreds of floating shields and ballast ships and motorized destroyers, lumbering with slow deliberation toward a rendezvous with Muglair. The ballast ships were fully weighted with explosive ordnance to be dropped on the earthworks of Shamba, and the destroyers with their battery-powered electric motors darted among the larger vessels practicing offensive and evasive maneuvers. The shields interposed between the ground of the Notches and the fleet were reorienting for the drop over the Skavian Edge, allowing a direct view of the underbellies of the sky monsters. From the edge Mutt saw a volley of antiaircraft shells, large metal orbs of explosives aimed at the ballast ships through the defensive cracks caused by reorientation of the shields. He was awestruck by this incredible scene as flashes of light followed by peals of thunder spread across the angled plane, as shields recoiled from the blows and chunks of steel flew in all directions, as the order of the Armada frayed with massive explosions and impacts diverting vessels and causing chain collisions. A gigantic shield caromed into a destroyer practicing its maneuvers too closely, ripping off a downballast tank and sending it racing into the sky, frantic airmen refiring the motors and struggling to release upwater to stabilize. A huge coordinated fusillade of flaming shells rained down from the Armada directly along the Skavian edge taking out the overlook and wreaking havoc in a line across the accumulating forces. Rising from the Edge Mutt saw a small Skavian fleet approaching beneath the Armada preparing to launch upward rocket attacks.
Ivy screamed at him through the window. What was the fool doing? They had to leave, leave now, leave NOW! Mutt raced into the hut and snatched the latest drafts of The Sphere from the table. Ivy was angry, uncontrollably angry that he would be grabbing their crap literature in this moment of peril. Mutt stood before the window and protested that it was worth saving; they had worked so hard on it. Ivy’s eyes grew comically distorted and Mutt thought she might kill him but she was looking past him through the window at an enormous bullet boulder headed directly for the hut. “DOWN!” she screamed with unmitigated terror. For a split second Mutt thought she was arguing his priorities then instinctively hit the floor knowing something awful was coming. Ivy threw herself onto the bowl over Hope and rolled onto the floor in a terrifically swift motion somehow landing to shield the child with her body as the boulder, a house-sized metal sphere firing shrapnel in all directions and timed to explode to inflict maximal damage on the structures of the Notches, hit the mound full force and bounced upward into the hut, bursting through the New Normal and shearing off the upper half of the walls, obliterating the ceiling and loft. An explosion of glass and timbers and dried mud sprayed through the hut. Mutt buried his head in his arms and Ivy tucked a terrified Hope into her curved body as their world shattered around them. The boulder flew a hundred yards past the severed hut and exploded, sending shrapnel and a shockwave back through the remaining walls toward their defenseless fronts.
Mutt leapt up in crisis mode stepping across the wreckage of shorn timbers and twisted loft railing to the figures of his wife and child and saw blood streaming from Ivy’s back. He reached for her in utter despair as if his hands alone could heal wounds and saw that his own arm was lacerated by glass and bleeding profusely. Ivy flipped around clutching her daughter, the child miraculously unscathed by either the initial impact or the blowback, and navigated the remains of the door to race down the mound steps, Mutt closely behind. Kippers ran out the door in the direction of the hammer panicked from the explosions never to be seen again. Another barrage of bullet boulders tumbled across the plane as the family hit the ground, praying no bullets would skim the earth into their skulls or orbs explode within death range. They leapt up running instinctively for the canteen, so far still intact. Mutt looked back and saw the hammer slammed by a chain-connected giant double anvil, its head shattering against the Arland rock and frame collapsing in a dusty heap. The tram pylons toppled over as injured and terrified riders tried to escape the tangle of cable amidst shrapnel fire. Spires of the church fractured from a barrage of shells and fell like retracting claws. A wall of flame rolled from the Skavian edge across the split garden crowned by massive jets and whirligigs of fire. Terrified people ran through the onslaught toward the Arland edge clinging to loved ones and carrying what few belongings they could grab in the chaos.
Ivy pulled Mutt’s bloody wrist forcefully to quicken his pace yelling at him to stop gawking. From the Skavian edge soldiers oriented to the Notches marched in formation shooting anything that moved. Ivy sensed that the central green was safe from shelling only because Skavian soldiers intended to occupy the structures. They ran through an alleyway next to the publishing authority emerging into a thoroughfare already crawling with soldiers. Mutt saw Volp kneeling before the authority door not understanding that a soldier was facing him until a bullet pierced his boss’s chest and his body slumped over. Mutt stopped in his tracks horrified and pulled Ivy back who in turn yanked back Hope. The soldier turned his gun on Mutt then delivered a mercy shot to Volp who was kicking the soldier in his death twitches. When the soldier turned his gun back on the young family they were gone. They ran pell mell through the alley for the Arland loading docks just beyond the sweep of the incursion, miraculously avoiding the proliferating bullets. The docks consisted of angled slips for Arland deliveries along the edge, with a large warehouse shielding the loading area from stray bullets flying from the central green. The Armada had passed over completely and was now descending across the surface of Skava. Arland was not prepared for a troop invasion of the Notches and was ceding this ground to Skava for the short term. Skava’s plans were more ambitious for at this moment a force of over seventy-five thousand soldiers oriented to Arland was breaching the great nation’s soil to establish a salient around the Notches, a central battlefront because of its location due west from Shamba. From the Notches Arland could most easily drop its shells and launch attacks on the new Hutman capital, and by controlling the Notches Skava could most easily prevent his.
A delivery carriage forced by its eastwater tank to continue its journey to the Notches pulled into a loading dock, its driver exiting with an incredulous expression at the awesome Armada he had just witnessed passing overhead, and the balls of steel tumbling into Arland from the Edge that he had not understood meant total war. It was the postal carrier bringing new notices form Rixjrig and Mutt ran with relief to him.
“We must leave now!”
He grabbed the man’s arm who was insistent on delivering the notices first. Mutt slapped him across the face and told him to face reality they were all going to die in minutes. The driver was stunned then angry then suddenly frightened. The carriage could not move without filling the tanks so Mutt grabbed the westwater hose and began pumping. Skavian gas balls exploded overhead dousing the roof of the warehouse with napalm igniting an incineration. Ivy insisted they would have to travel south because the terrain west of the Notches would be mercilessly bombarded. She grabbed the southwater hose and began filling a tank. Soldiers appeared to the side of the warehouse momentarily deterred by the smoke and debris from the gas ball. The driver uttered an expletive and said he was getting out of here. Mutt told him he would rip off his testicles and shove them down his throat if he tried to leave without them. Ivy jumped into the carriage with Hope as Mutt joined the driver in the passenger seat. Soldiers danced around flaming napalm on the edge of the docks shouting at the carriage to stop. Mutt flashed an obscene gesture and a soldier fired a shot. Plumes of smoke quickly separated the dock from the carriage as it moved backward to the boulevard. A rain of ordnance continued rolling off the Notches and falling past the carriage as it retreated, and new attacks aimed directly at the soil of Arland commenced, attempts to soften the sparsely populated territory for invasion. At the boulevard Ivy insisted they dump enough westwater to maintain traction for a south turn. The driver needed no convincing because the density of bombing due west of the Notches was increasing dramatically. He dropped all northwater to achieve maximum velocity and headed for land they hoped was free of the ferocious attack. But none of them could have known the danger into which they were racing. The salient south of the Notches opened westward into Arland with lightning speed, and they drove right into its maw. The driver stopped the carriage because he saw a roadblock on the boulevard ahead and could not turn back for lack of northwater. He told his passengers they were on their own and was about to exit the carriage when Skavian soldiers surrounded and fired warning shots. They leveled guns at the terrified occupants and were about to shoot them, child and all, on Muglair’s orders to show no mercy to Inta scum. Ivy pushed a muzzle away from her face and spoke before the soldier could react.
“Shoot us and Kadangle will have your head. I am on your list.”
The young family was moved to a holding pen confined to a single tilted board with their Notches gravity. The driver was nowhere to be seen and Ivy believed he had been shot. Mutt pulled glass from Ivy’s back and dressed the wound on his forearm with fabric torn from his shirt. The fighting raged as Skava established perimeter defenses committed to holding the salient. It was a vain quest, for Arland would never allow that hated nation to hold its territory. But for now the salient belonged to the enemy and Arlanders were subjected to a military primed for outrage. Mutt was sinking into despondency knowing from Ivy’s past revelations that the Flume meant the end times. The world was now an hourglass counting down to destruction. She told him to be strong and remember their blessings. Whatever they might lose to evil, their love had triumphed in the Notches, and the memories were as real as the spiked wire surrounding the pen. Within hours prisoner transports arrived and the family was thrown into the domed bed of a crowded military vehicle falling painfully into a corner with their misaligned gravity, Ivy sheltering a crying Hope between her parents’ bodies and clutching her satchel telling prying soldiers it was for child care. The transport carried them to the Edge from which they were manhandled into a sideland transport, the Arland prisoners now flopping onto the small front wall of the bed crushing into the young family. Mutt stewed at the treatment of his loved ones but said nothing. This was his first experience on Skavian soil since his forgotten childhood and he understood now why Ivy fled. He resolved that he must be the son of Outin and Paxa, not merely a boy from Shivaree. Great challenges required great character and he would find a way to save his family.
At a transit hub female officers boarded the transport and separated the males from women and children. Mutt snatched Ivy’s satchel. She pulled it back instinctively suspecting betrayal but he wrested it away. She looked at him with fright knowing whatever hopes she had for the future lay within its folded pages. But then she looked at him with fright knowing she may never see him again, her savior and loving husband, their family violently ripped apart just like her own family in childhood. She leaned over and mysteriously whispered the word “Irla” into his ear. He watched horrified as his wife and daughter were forcibly removed from the transport, trying to comfort them with his eyes. But there was nothing he could do. Resistance to the evil apparatus was futile. Hope flexed spasmodically at the rear door as if a surge of energy in her tiny muscles might bind her to her father. She disappeared with her mother as the flaps closed shut, leaving Mutt to cradle Ivy’s satchel, all that remained of his family. In the moment before the guard returned, he unconsciously shuffled the papers, hiding some behind a divider and displaying others conspicuously in the main sleeve. The world had not yet ended and he would have to endure for his family. He needed a plan because he could not cope with losing them passively.
As she was carried like produce to a new vehicle with Hope in her arms, unable to walk on the half-slope of Skavian ground, Ivy’s mind rinsed clean of all emotion and returned to the paralyzed trauma of Harmour. Could she again find a way to escape evil? The answer was no, she could not, because this time evil would outrun all. She removed her wedding band and quietly dropped it to the ground where it tumbled into a latrine. She knew what this horrific reimmersion into the country of her birth meant. She could no longer be married to Mutt Ogga.
Mira received Mutt’s letter but they did not flee Shivaree. They had nowhere to go. They purchased gas masks on the black market and practiced ten-minute evacuation drills. By the time the sirens sounded on the Fifteenth of Tarpin, a wall of poison gas was already spilling over the Edge headed straight for Shivaree, gathering speed with the gravity of Skava. The family grabbed their evacuation bags and tossed in toiletries. The scene on the streets was chaos, people fleeing in terror from an unknown assailant. Mira and Dox united with Sabin and her husband and children, and Donega who was now living with a roommate in the old shed once occupied by Mutt, at a prearranged location. The crowd was rushing westward away from Skava, sirens incessantly blaring, bags of belongings swishing pendulously at their sides. The Oggas did not understand, no one understood, that they needed to flee crosswise, north or south, to escape the deadly cloud racing toward them. On the rush of the main way Donega stumbled and was trampled by the sea of people. She rolled to the side clutching her gas mask to her face. From the direction of Shivaree she saw an ominous pea green cloud crashing across the slanted trees felling stragglers in their tracks. Dox turned back to search for his daughter leaving Mira to push ahead with Sabin’s family. He found her just as the first wisps of nerve gas poured over them. He lifted her up and they began running to the west in terror then fell onto the roadbed. Donega was convulsing. She ripped off her mask in death throes, inhaling the deadly gas directly as it thickened about them. Her mouth was frothing and lips turning blue, her body twitching in spasms. Dox realized in horror she was dying. He realizing in horror he was dying. He vomited into his gas mask and felt his body losing motor control. He tried to affix her mask back onto her face but it was hopeless. He fell across her chest in a last vain attempt to protect her, a father’s dying gesture for his child, and they expired where they lay, their bodies shrouded in the sickly mist, victims of the scientific discoveries of Harmour. Mira would never recover their bodies. She could never give them a decent burial. She would never again live a decent life. She could never again look at a statue of Nehalla.
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